Vending machine at the Facebook offices


Vending machines ought to follow high street shops on the conveyor belt of death that is online retail. Yet a growing fondness for anonymous shopping (see also supermarket checkout bots) is giving new life to old tech.

Best Buy, the US electronics store, has wheeled gadget-filled vending machines into airports and elsewhere across North America, while employees at Facebook HQ in California can scan their ID cards to receive replacement keyboards or stationery. There are even plans in San Diego for 30 machines to dispense marijuana prescriptions. But that’s America. Japan’s machine obsession is well known. What about Britain? Jonathan Hilder is boss of the Automatic Vending Association, which represents the half-million refreshments machines in the UK. That sounds like a lot, but they number only one per 150 people here. The US has one per 50, and Japan one per 23.

“The British thing is still doing business with people,” Hilder says. “We’ve tried machines for Lego, say, or, umbrellas, but none has taken off. I think that will change as the quality improves.”

It might take a while for us to accept the strangest machines Hilder has heard of, however: live crabs (Japan) and false limbs (Indonesia).