Out of the box: Japan's vending machines get a modern makeover amid pandemic

The health crisis has highlighted the merits of the unmanned dispensers, leading to a flurry of new — and sometimes bizarre — products being offered by the electronic boxes

Japan Times -- May 09
While the number of vending machines in Japan has been shrinking in recent years, the nation still boasts the highest number of units per capita of any country.

And the COVID-19 pandemic has underscored the advantages of these unmanned vendors, leading to a flurry of new — and sometimes bizarre — products being offered inside the electronic boxes.

In early April, Yo-kai sent its ramen dispensers to Haneda Airport, Tokyo Station and a parking area in the capital’s central Minato Ward. Four types of steaming bowls of noodles are currently available, priced at ¥790 and served in 90 seconds. By the end of the year, the firm hopes to introduce 250 of them throughout the nation, with hundreds more envisioned in the years ahead.

“People have been trying to eliminate human contact, and that’s why more food and beverage operators are trying to use our system to replace on-site human labor,” Lin says. “I think it’s a good solution for everybody at this point.”

Vending haven

Vending machines are ubiquitous in Japan. They can be found on almost every urban street corner, as well as inside corporate offices, commercial buildings and train stations — not to mention highway rest stops and even along rural roads.

While their numbers have been steadily falling, there were still 4 million in the nation as of the end of December, according to the Japan Vending System Manufacturers Association — roughly 1 for every 31 people. These also include money changers, ticket machines and coin lockers, among other similar devices.

That figure is expected to inch down to 3.96 million this year, according to the Yano Research Institute, as those installed in unprofitable locations are being removed due to pressure on operators’ profits in an aging, shrinking nation.

And while more than half of all vending machines sell beverages, advances in technology and demand for contactless purchases have seen the devices accommodate an expanding range of products.

There are vending machines that sell crepes, gyōza dumplings, roasted sweet potatoes, pizza, curry and, for the curious foodie, edible insects. It’s not just meals. Some offer face masks, toys, SIM cards, dolls, clothes, drones and even engagement rings — you name it.

The dispensers are also good PR. In March, Tanaka Jitsugyo Co. began selling locally sourced frozen wagyu beef steaks and other meat products in a vending machine by a gasoline stand it operates in the city of Tsuyama, Okayama Prefecture. Since then, it has been receiving a steady stream of media inquiries. ...continue reading