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Vending machines one of the winners of the coronavirus pandemic

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With approximately 2.3 million units in operation at the end of 2021, Japan can rightfully claim to be a "vending machine superpower," ranked at or near the world's highest on a per capita basis. And thanks mostly to innovative marketing during the coronavirus pandemic, writes Nana Hidaki in Shukan Shincho (June 9), their numbers are on a growth trajectory. 

Recent vending machine growth has been particularly impressive for food items. Consumers can presently purchase items ranging from pizza and takoyaki (octopus dumplings) to ramen, Chinese-style steamed buns (shoronpo), crab, steak and even premium varieties of caviar, just to name a few.

Some of the refrigerated foods sold by the machines are semi-prepared types to be carried home and heated, while others are microwaved and served for consumption on the spot. 

"The consume-by dates for frozen foods are relatively long, and vending machine sales help to reduce food loss," said Naonobu Tsukaguchi, a director of Shinagawa-based Cqree (pronounced shikurii).

"By enabling 24-hour sales, and unmanned operation, personnel costs are minimized and vending machines can be harnessed for various imaginative types of promotion ideas, so as to serve as a new type of sales tools. They can be installed at gasoline stands, for instance, or in laundromats and so on, appealing to diversified needs."

"Depending on the location and type of product, average monthly sales can range from around 400,000 to 1.5 million yen," Tsukaguchi pointed out.

As for return on investment, vending machine makers typically price their units at around 2 million yen, but with discounting the prices are closer to 1.4 million yen, or slightly higher if such options as e-money touch panels and other features are built in.

Considering the size of this initial outlay, if an operator achieves a monthly turnover of 1.5 million yen, it's like winning the lottery.

From March of 2021, Noodle Tours began selling ramen from vending machines in 25 of Japan's 47 prefectures, expects to have 150 to 200 units up and running within this year.

"Soon after the start of the coronavirus pandemic, some ramen wholesalers saw their sales plummet by as much as 80%," company director Koji Maruyama told the magazine. "They made efforts to bolster sales via mail order, but the high costs of shipping were a disadvantage. So we came up with the idea of unmanned sales from vending machines, which eliminates the shipping costs."

While ramen or udon noodles tend to be the most popular items sold by the vending machines, some amazing new products have taken off recently. Take the Sapporo-based Gaku bakery.

Gaku's claim to fame is vending machine sales of canned strawberry shortcake with whipped cream. The cans are opened by a pull tab, just like a can of beer, and contents consumed with a spoon.

Within a month of its introduction in June 2021, Gaku was selling 500 cans per day, with sales originally confined to three locations in Tokyo and two each in Sapporo and Osaka.

"Cake in general is easily damaged and difficult to carry," the company's spokesperson was quoted as saying. "So our starting point was finding ways to get around those shortcomings, enabling us to offer people the taste of pastry at any time, round the clock.

"One major challenge was how to make the cross section of the cake appear attractive, providing visual appeal that lets customers imagine eating the cake just by looking at the can. To this end, our method of inserting the ingredients into the can was also ingenious."

Within five years, Gaku expects to have 5,000 vending machines in operation nationwide.

Writer Hidaki believes the rivalry between vending machines and convenience stores can be expected to intensify.

© Japan Today

©2022 GPlusMedia Inc.

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With mainly telework and thus more free time on my hands, I use vending machines less and buy drinks and snacks at the local supermarket or drug store where they are usually 40% or more cheaper than convenience stores or vending machines.

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It's a disgrace the amount of 24hr vending machines given the need to conserve resources, reduce electricity use, and plastic consumption. Clusters of machines glowing 27/7 every 100 or so meters. It's not something to be proud of and is an obvious area to focus on for the environment, and to help avoid rolling blackouts feared this summer. For me, vending machines in parks is the worst where even the small amount of green, natural spaces in cities is blighted by commercial priorities.

I use them and appreciate the convenience but the sheer volume is indicative of a need for hyper convenience, laziness, and the unchecked expansion of places to consume and spend.

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