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November 6, 2010

Rescued from its long tenure as the home of processed snacks, the vending machine is enjoying a moment of unprecedented glitz.

101 retail design vending machine illo thumbnail

For those who loathe “high-touch customer service” (read: pushy salespeople), how about just punching a few buttons and swiping your card? By now, ATMs and airport self-check-in kiosks have eroded our aversion to sharing credit-card details with an unmanned gadget. And this new comfort with technology has ushered in a renaissance of a beloved, if low-tech, vendor of yore: the Automat, that early 20th-century coin-operated paradigm of Americana that served up stews, sandwiches, and sodas, saving on labor costs and staying open for business long after all the other stores had been shuttered.

When the concept picked up speed in Japan in the mid-1990s, the dispensers were filled with canned coffee, men’s dress shirts, pornography, flowers, and umbrellas. In the United States, the device had no such  exotic wares to save it, and it faded into low-brow obscurity with the advent of the ubiquitious junk-food vending machine—–E5 Snickers, D4 Doritos.

Today, however, it’s primarily about luxury goods. Cosmetics giant Elizabeth Arden’s kiosk offers a “virtual beauty consultant,” that (not who) can suggest the appropriate product for a particular skin type and then spit out a $100 tube of beauty cream. A machine owned by Coty, the world’s largest fragrance company, allows potential buyers to sample its perfumes by pushing a button to release a scented spritz. In Abu Dhabi, a vending machine dispenses gold bars and coins in increments of up to 10 grams.

The swankest example, however, is the Semi-Automatic, which replaces the hotel gift shop in the lobby of the Marcel Wanders–designed Mondrian South Beach in Miami. It offers 24-hour service in a city of 24/7 entertainment and takes plastic only. Curated by Morgans Hotel Group creative director Kim Walker, the Semi vends 24-karat-gold handcuffs, the day rental of a Rolls-Royce, and $400 marabou feather vests.

The practicality of this supremely do-it-yourself shopping model is showing up in more quotidian forms: In 2002, UK grocery chain Sainsbury’s installed a vending machine stocked with 150 products, including staples like milk and bread, that could be still accessed when the store was closed. It turned out to be a popular sales channel, especially among night-shift workers. Meanwhile, a traveler can score some techy gadget in an airport terminal vending machine and then watch a movie on it with the help of a DVD-peddling kiosk. While it may spell bad news for those pushy salesclerks, clearly the Automat model is here to stay.

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