Japan's Ubiquitous Vending Machines Are Struggling as Citizens Avoid City Centers
Earlier this year, Pringles started stocking its vending machines with some limited-edition, only-in-Japan packages of Kanto Dashi Shoyu Ramen-flavored potato chips. But as mouth-watering as that Char siu pork flavoring sounds, it's not as easy as just popping down to the closest convenience store and picking them up: according to SoraNews24, the ultra-coveted chips are only available in the roughly 1,000 Pringles vending machines that are scattered throughout the country and even then, you have to "win" an arcade-style game that distributes packages of chips at random.
Although there are still glorious surprises, unexpected snacks, and almost every possible beverage inside the estimated 5 million vending machines that are currently operational in Japan, they're being dispensed a lot less frequently than they used to be. Bloomberg News reports that monthly sales volume of drink-filled vending machines has fallen by 35 percent this year, due to the ongoing pandemic which has kept locals away from their offices and out of city centers. (The fact that Japan currently has a ban on travelers from 159 countries and regions probably hasn't helped either.)
The Japan Vending System Manufacturers Association told the outlet that the number of vending machines in the country is half of what it was a decade ago—but there are still so many of them that there's roughly one machine for every 23 people.
Sales at vending machines had already started to slip before the pandemic, and their operators are trying to find ways to ensure that they're still viable (and valuable) if the trend continues. “We’re telling them to look at the vending machines as a sort of real estate—it’s one square meter of land, has electricity and a cooling box,” Dominik Steiner, the CEO of "internet-of-things startup" VPC Asia said. “What can you do with this other than selling drinks?”
Some of the ideas that he's suggested include turning the unused space inside the machine into "a connected network for private data storage," or finding a way to use them as weather- or earthquake-monitoring stations.
That's not to say that the existing vending machines aren't being restocked with new products, or that they aren't finding ways to adapt to, you know, all of this. Japanese beverage company DyDo is adding two-packs of face masks and 10-packs of antibacterial wipes to its 3,000-ish machines, and both items sell for a reasonable ¥200 ($1.90) each. The vendor says it also has plans to add more health-related items in the months ahead.
DyDo has also started rolling out foot-operated vending machines, which have three levels of bigger-than-usual buttons at the bottom. Instead of mashing a numbered button with their fingertips, users just have to press it with their toes. When their selection drops to the collection area, there's a foot-powered pedal that opens the plastic door, making the entire process as hands-free as possible.
Meanwhile, some railway stations in Tokyo have just gotten new vending machines that dispense nothing but different kinds of apple juice. We can't decide if a Pringles machine would pair well with that or not.