In an online list of the world’s wackiest vending machines; compiled by Fodor’s Travel, Japan got the nod for 3 out of 13 — those selling beer, fresh eggs and bananas.

The Fodor’s list failed to impress this writer, who has seen machines with considerably wackier offerings. Some years ago, for instance, I spotted a machine that enabled people to automatically wash, rinse and dry their dogs.

The appearance of original vending machines does warrant media coverage, which is certainly the case for Dohiemon, a new type of vending machine that went into service earlier this year.

Hie” means coldness. Preceding it with “do” and adding “mon” at the end creates a clever parody of Doraemon, the blue robot cat of cartoon fame.

The July 8 edition of Shukan Jitsuwa reported that the first Dohiemon went into service outside the Ohira-ken noodle restaurant in Tokyo’s Yotsuya 3-chome last February. The machine can dispense up to 11 varieties of frozen meals to be carried home, thawed and consumed.

While restrictions during the pandemic may have been one factor leading to Dohiemon’s introduction, another appears to be a new set of mandatory food hygiene regulations, referred to in English as Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP), that were adopted by the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare from June 1.

“HACCP provides penalties for violators,” a foodstuffs analyst is quoted as saying, adding, “Since compliance involves additional labor, this is likely to place hardships on older restaurant operators or small shops.”

The obvious incentive to installing Dohiemon is that eateries can boost revenues by continuing to sell their menu offerings after closing time. Depending on configuration, some models accept cash although others instead limit payment methods to prepaid IC cards or QR codes via smart phones.

Upbeat over its initial success, a sales agent pitched Dohiemon by saying, “It can be easily installed not only at food and beverage shops but inside apartment buildings or on the street in residential areas.”

A source familiar with distribution pointed out, “Since the machine’s inventory can be checked remotely via the internet, it’s also expected to hold down food loss, which is a matter of concern worldwide.”

Fighting a losing battle

Recent successes aside however, the past two decades have not been kind to the vending machine business in Japan. An article in Yukan Fuji (Jun. 23) syndicated from IT MEDIA Business Online cited figures by the Japan Vending System Manufacturers Association, which noted the number of machines in Japan peaked at around 5.6 million units in the year 2000, but have since declined, dropping by 400,000 to 5.2 million units in the first 10 years of this century.

By last year, the total number had fallen to 4,045,800. This marked a decline of 1.16 million over the previous 10 years, and compared with the first decade, a three-fold drop-off.

The principal cause for this decline, the article suggests, was the widescale installation of self-service coffee dispensers at convenience store outlets. A second factor is likely to be a decline in the core customer base.

Broken down by function, vending machines selling beverages are by far most numerous in Japan, accounting for 56.4% of the total. Second are machines that provide a service, such as coin lockers or machines that issue small change, with 32.1%, followed by items for daily use, such as combs and toothbrushes, which account for 5.2%.

At the bottom were machines dispensing food items, which account for just 1.7% of the total. By contrast, while the U.S. boasts 1.43 million vending machines selling pretzels, candy bars, ice cream and other edibles, the figure in Japan, only about 70,000 units, is less than one-twentieth that of the U.S.

Vending machines are still able to hold the line in Japan thanks a receptive consumer culture, advanced technology (including adoption of eco-friendly measures) and good service. Losses from thefts or acts of vandalism are not unheard of, but tend to be comparatively rare here.

Lending machines

A recent vending machine experiment merges the functions of product sales with advertising promotion. The Nikkei Marketing Journal (June 25) reported that Bulk Homme, a producer of men’s skin care products, announced it would operate a vending machine inside the Shibuya Hikarie building for the month ending July 14.

In what Bulk Homme is calling a “direct to consumer” business model, its monthlong campaign has festooned the machine exterior with a striking black-and-white design and distinctive undulating English typeface that suggests the products will impart a “velvety texture” to a male’s skin.

The machine offers 10 separate items, including a daily use set for ¥550 and a set of five cosmetic masks priced at ¥4,400. Selections are made on an LCD touch panel.

While Bulk Homme stated it has aimed for monthly sales of ¥200,000, a second motive is for the machine to be spotted by shoppers, who will hopefully generate attention for its brand on social media.

The operator of the vending machine, a company called Sukima Depaato (which translates as crevice department), told the Nikkei that instead of jidō-hanbaiki (vending machine) it uses the name “jiyū-hanbaiki” (free-selling machine). Once Bulk Homme’s campaign is over, the same machine will be periodically switched to sell other merchandise such as towels, children’s toys and so on.

Big in Japan is a weekly column that focuses on issues being discussed by domestic media organizations.

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