Business | May 16

Japan's vending machine culture is ahead of the curve

In today's Japan, millions of vending machines dispense a mountain of goods and services ranging from green tea, umbrellas, canned cakes, bananas, omikuji fortunetelling slips, noodles, batteries, T-shirts and shampoo.

Ever-adaptable to market trends, the manufacturers of vending machines responded with commercial alacrity to the COVID-19 crisis by providing medical mask dispensers, which have the added benefit for users of avoiding the need for interaction with pharmacy or convenience store staff. Obviating the need to sit in hospital waiting rooms -- notorious contagion zones -- are vending machines selling PCR testing kits.

Drinks remain by far the most popular item. Avid consumers of canned coffee, Japanese customers can also find buckwheat and oolong teas, English breakfast tea and cocoa. Sports drinks compete with energy-boosting health beverages. Many of the brands have helpful information in English. Enigmatic catchphrases such as "Refresh and Vital Drip," are less useful.

A combination of online shopping, competition from convenience stores, tougher tobacco and alcohol sale rules and a declining population has led to a drop in the number of machines nationwide (though there are still more than 4 million in service) but the industry is showing signs of rallying. Spurred partly by the pandemic, temperature-adjusting machines dispensing frozen and chilled food have done well. High-end food-dispensing machines now carry luxuries such as fresh sashimi, wagyu beef steaks and caviar. ...continue reading

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