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They weren’t the only solution; e-commerce was a natural saviour for many brands when human contact became a deterrent. But Japanese people still value and enjoy the act of going directly to a store to buy something. And in a market where convenience is key, vending machines have provided an accessible channel for consumers of far more than just soft drinks.
Japan has over 4 million vending machines, the most per capita of any country in the world. And the stifling Covid-19 situation gave the seemingly outdated units a second life as the source of a revenue stream for many companies.
Vending machine as unattended store
As restaurants shut down eat-in service, many evolved to offer lunch boxes. Then engineers came up with freezer vending machines that could sell frozen restaurant food. This idea quickly gained traction across the country. For example, in Sapporo, in the north of the main island of Hokkaido, a fish wholesaler installed a vending machine to sell boneless slices of salmon and mackerel, making the products convenient for cooking. The company previously provided fish for lunches at schools, hospitals, and nurseries, which closed due to the pandemic.
Also, a famous gyoza (fried dumpling) shop now sells its products over the counter, but via vending machines. The machines are open 24/7, and don’t require an attendant, hence less person-to-person contact. When the pandemic hit, Showa, one of the country’s largest producers of gyoza, experienced a dive in sales and began successfully selling products via vending machines. “It may become normal to buy delicious meals through vending machines,” Showa president Yoshiharu Takahashi said. “The restaurant industry has lost vitality due to Covid, but we want to keep at it and stay undefeated with the gyoza we’re proud of.”
Vending machine innovations have been a saviour for restaurants and shops around the nation, and more recently they’ve been introduced to overseas markets, selling Japanese curry and local cuisines.
The new travel agent
Peach Aviation is using the machines to help send consumers on mystery tours. The low-cost carrier, which is under the umbrella of giant airline ANA, installed a capsule vending machine called Tabi Gacha in Tokyo city on 13 October 2021. The machines let consumers enter a travel lottery.
Each capsule has a destination written on it and contains a voucher for Peach Points towards the destination, a mission related to the destination, and an original pin badge.
Since its installation at Shinsaibashi Parco in August, Tabi Gacha has become a hot topic on social media. A tweet by a person who won Peach Points for a flight to Ishigaki Island has been retweeted more than 17,000 times. Peach says more than 3,000 capsules were sold in about two months. It’s a case of vending machines supporting the sale of airline tickets in an entertaining way.
Patisserie Okashi Gaku pastry shop has also used vending machines to sell its products in an entertaining way. Okashi Gaku packages its pastries in transparent cans and sells them via vending machines. On 16 July this year, when the company launched its canned strawberry shortcake via Twitter, it quickly racked up 190,000 retweets, with comments such as, “I’ve never seen anything like this!!”, “I have to get me one.” and “It’s sooo kawaii/cute.”
In addition to dealing with pandemic problems, patisserie shops have been losing share to convenience stores, which have been upping their game in the sweets category. Many pastry shops have struggled to keep pace. Packaging has helped some, but selling via vending machines has upped the surprise, the cuteness factor, and the social-media shareability.
Vending machines that do good
Vending machines are also playing a role in encouraging social responsibility. Nestlé Japan has set up machines in five locations across the country – including in Tokyo, Aichi, and Hiroshima prefectures – to sell beverages and confectionery that are nearing their expiration dates.
The machines are designed to help reduce food loss by selling at a discount some products that previously would have been discarded. The program features nine kinds of products, including Nescafe bottled coffee and KitKat chocolate, at prices 10 per cent to 50 per cent lower than the suggested retail price.
Food products must be distributed to retailers within the first third of the period between the manufacturing date and the expiration date. A spokesperson at Nestlé Japan said, “We have been adjusting our production based on demand forecasts, but food loss inevitably occurs. We want to create as little waste as possible.”
Although Japan may not be the leading market for tech innovation, Japanese retailers have the ability to identify creative ways to adapt swiftly and remain resilient. With the explosion of new technology available, the humble vending machine provides retailers with enormous opportunities beyond being point-of-sale channels.