Fascinating article in New York Times about the New Touch Face of Vending Machines.

No longer the domain of candy bars and potato chips, vending machines are gaining popularity around the world as purveyor’s of higher ticket items like beauty products and small electronics from Apple.

The machines themselves have also gone hi-tech with touch pad screens that blunt vending machine rage through sensors that ensure that a customer’s credit card is not charged unless the chosen item has dropped. 

They even have eye scans that can tell by looking at skin and wrinkles if customers are old enough to buy tobacco.

The economics of these new “automated retail stores” are quite compelling. No overhead, ability to quickly change out merchandise, and even to relocate the machine (for example, to another part of the airport) after analysis of foot traffic.

Sound like the perfect retail solution. So what’s missing?

In a word…People.

But is that necessarily a bad thing?

The machines are designed to light up when they sense a customer approaching. The article mentions that unfortunately  this is more than many customers get from human retailers.

Personally, I am intrigued by the idea but I think there is a limit to what I might buy from these new vending machines.

In the example of skincare, I might pick up my usual base or mascara. But that’s more like re-ordering than purchasing.

But it definitely wouldn’t replace my trips to Sephora or the Clinique counter where I rely on knowledgeable (and for the most part friendly) salespeople to guide me in my purchases and make suggestions for new products.

Sometimes it’s seeing a certain color eyeshadow or admiring the skin tone on one of the salesgirls that leads me to inquire about (and ultimately purchase) something I didn’t originally intend to buy.

I suppose a machine could be programmed somehow to instigate that kind of impulse purchase and advice…

Maybe the same sensors that read the wrinkles and skin in the tobacco age verification could be re-programmed to also use this information to suggest a new eye cream.

Bottom line I am intrigued by the idea of automated high end retail…but I don’t think I’m running out to find the nearest machine just yet.

That’s my point of view. What’s your twist?

What do you think about these new machines?

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Julie is the Founder and CEO of BrandTwist, a brand consultancy that helps entrepreneurs and corporations build stronger, more profitable brands.


  1. I hope Sales People are not becoming irrelevent! That would put even more of our hardworking population out of work! 😉

    I think Julie is SPOT-ON with her “Re-ordering” vs “New Purchase” concept. I highly doubt I’d spent $275 at a Vending Machine on a Digital Camera I know nothing about. I would feel much more comfortable heading into a “Best Buy”, doing some homework, viewing comparative models; holding them; and of course, asking the Salesperson if the $350 model worth the extra money, or can I get by without sacrificing too much for the lesser expensive option.

    But having said that, if Best Buy had a Vending Machine to replace the Rechargable Battery in my cell phone (a simpler, more cut & dry purchase) and I could avoid the lines for a quick swipe of my Am Ex, than I all for progress.

    I think it’s a very good idea in this day & age of “quicker, faster, more efficient”, but it has to be the right product behind the glass door.

  2. I was thinking something similar at the auto-boarding/ticket machine at JFK last week.

    Speaking as a “typical” man who hates shopping, I won’t miss most sales people all that smarmy “up and cross selling”. I’ve been there – door to door sales, retail and I know how much pressure these folks are under.

    That said, a really great sales person can be invaluable, particular with clothing. I barely have any taste so a knowledgeable sales person can really help if they are HONEST. “Sir, the orange and green checked shirt with those pants? no no, try this…”

    I’d like to automate haircuts though…stick your head in a bowl, pic a picture of some dashing young gent with a sharp haircut, select and voila! Your hair is precision laser cut the same way. None of that painful “so, where are you going on holiday” small talk with the barber nonsense 🙂

    • @Floyd and @Gregg thanks for the great comments. Now if we could just combine the automatic (no chit chat) hair cut WITH the automatic cell phone battery re-purchase…that would be real progress. Think of the efficiency! I wonder what you’d do with all the new found free time. 🙂

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