By Kara Ohngren
When high heels start to rub, consumers today can take the edge off with a visit to a vending machine--and not just for a soul-soothing candy bar. "Our customers love that they can walk right up, put money in and instantly get a pair of shoes," says Ashley Ross, who sells ballet flats out of four Rollasole machines in Los Angeles and Las Vegas. "There's no hassle or sales pitch. It's simple, and they can go on their way."
Last year Ross and business partner Lindsay Klimitz bought the U.S. rights to Rollasole from its U.K. founder, Matt Horan. They plan to place seven additional machines in New York, Miami, Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Chicago in the coming months.
The size of the U.S. vending machine industry has stayed steady over the past few years, pulling in about $42 billion last year, according to the National Automatic Merchandising Association (NAMA). And while nearly 95 percent of that revenue came from traditional options such as beverages and snacks, NAMA president and CEO Carla Balakgie believes recent innovations like touchscreen technology, electronic payment options and unique products could drive the industry forward.
Savvy entrepreneurs are engaging the always-open kiosks to offer everything from $5 works of art (artist Clark Whittington's Art-o-mats, which utilize retired cigarette machines) to fresh-cut flowers (Raleigh, N.C.-based 24-Hour Flower).
The U.S. is still a ways away from the vending machine dominance of Japan--where more than 5.2 million machines generated about $65 billion in 2009 from sales of everything from eggs to pet rhinoceros beetles. But new companies are bringing new products to stateside machines all the time.
Machines in Las Vegas, New Jersey and New York peddle pieces of 24-karat gold under the name Gold to go. The Semi-Automatic machine at New York City's Hudson Hotel is stocked with a rotating array of quirky items, such as copies of The Catcher in the Rye, designer threads and a rental agreement for a Ferrari 599 GTB. The Sandbox's Beach Shop in a Box dispenses essentials like sunscreen, sunglasses, beach balls and towels. And Greenaid's seedbomb vending machines--part of the company's "guerrilla gardening efforts"--dispense balls of clay, compost and seeds that can be thrown into sidewalk cracks or barren parking lots to grow a little green.
"Gen-Y, who has grown up with technology that allows them to define their own experiences, is driving much of the innovation in the industry," Balakgie says. "They love the anonymity and to be able to get what they want, when they want it."