The Japanese have long been known for their strange and silly yet often wildly efficient vending machines, and American businesses are finally catching on — providing an ever-increasing assortment of products at your fingertips with the simple swipe of your credit card and the selection of a box number.
In fact, several startups are trying to once again "disrupt" American commerce by embracing the vending machine model — like this Boston startup called Ohner that helps companies beta test their new products by filling empty slots in existing vending machines, sort of like food trucks once did for pop-up restaurants. (Another, in San Francisco, famously learned the hard way not to call the unmanned boxes "bodegas" or refer to them as a replacement for the beloved corner stores, however.)
Here's just a partial list of some of the more amazingly convenient vending machines and vending machine startup companies we've seen popping up:
By upcycling recently banned cigarette machines in North Carolina to sell his work, one artist automated his 1997 art show and created the first Art-o-Mat — now with over 100 machines selling $1 works of original art in Whole Foods and other locations around the country.
If you've traveled through a US airport in recent years, you've no doubt seen the (millennial) pink Benefit Cosmetics kiosks dispensing best-selling beauty counter products — the first department store makeup brand to commit to vending machines, they're now in 30 airports around the country. But InStyle reports Benefit is no longer the only powder game in town, with everyone from Sephora to Essie nail polish to 3FLOZ — a vending machine dispensing basics in, you guessed it, only three-full-ounces-or-less containers — joining the travel crew.
As hipster cities and their throngs of fixed-gear commuters continue to grow, so will startups like Seattle-based Rider Oasis, aka the "Redbox for bike parts". The first Rider Oasis vending machine — selling bike repair items, pumps, drinks, and snacks — has been up and running at a local brewery since September, and the founders hope an Indiegogo campaign can help them scale quickly to 30 or 40 vending machines around the Pacific Northwest, they recently told GeekWire.
One of the OG vending machines, books have been auto-distributed as far back as 1822 — a clever workaround to getting jailed for selling banned texts, according to HuffPo's Brief History of Book Vending Machines. More recent startups include Novel Idea Vending, Readomatic, and Monkey Paw's BIBLIO-MAT. But because everything's bigger in Texas, the plans for an anxiously-awaited massive waterpark outside Dallas also include a 20-foot-tall library book vending machine.
Champagne wishes and caviar dreams, now with the clink of a (specially branded) coin thanks to Moet & Chandon's vending machines — currently a novelty only available in London, at the Mandarin Oriental in Las Vegas, and at Arnaud's French 75 in New Orleans, according to Thrillist, but girls can dream. Each chilled, carefully dispensed split even comes with its own tiny plastic flute. Because, #bougie.
If you've taken a road trip through the Southwest over the last few years, you may have spotted a Carvana — a fully-automated car vending machine that looks like a toy from some sort of reverse Gulliver's Travels. The online-only used car dealership founded in Arizona in 2013 allows customers to shop, finance, and even trade in cars through its website then pick up their new wheels at one of the company's roadside "coin-operated" vending machines. Forbes called Carvana one of America's most promising companies in 2015, along with saying that the vending machine model is "the tip of the disruption iceberg."
In a parting-of-the-skies moment for city dwellers and public transit takers everywhere, America's favorite 24-hour pharmacy is going unmanned with 80 mini-mart vending machines rolling out nationwide by the end of 2017, the company just announced. Each CVS box will stock 70 of its best-selling convenience products, from tampons to Advil to drinks and snacks, placed in high-traffic areas like public transit stations, office parks, and college campuses. Look for them starting to appear in New England and New York this month.
As Travel+Leisure once said, "Heaven help the parents who find themselves stuck in an unexpected layover, sans spare diapers." Thankfully, since 2015 Jessica Alba's popular healthy lifestyle brand The Honest Company has been dispensing extra nappies, hand sanitizer, toothpaste, deodorant, and other TSA-approved, curated kits through airport vending machines in nearly a dozen terminals nationwide.
Two years ago, digital ad company Vengo Labs launched a network of vending machines on college campuses that traded students free samples (from brands like Kiehl's) in exchange for their email address. Adweek reported last month that the vending machines are so wildly popular (at places like NYU and Harvard, or nearby Planet Fitness gyms) that the company is now in 38 of 50 states and recently announced they may also be getting $2M in investment from investors on ABC's Shark Tank.
Thanks to Chicago-based Farmer's Fridge, a vending machine dispensing salads, chia puddings, and more healthy Pinteresting options, it's now possible to stick to your gluten-free vegetarian or Whole 30 diet even when traveling — or just not feel like crap while stuck at the airport, with current locations that include Chicago O'Hare plus employee lounges, college campuses, even a handful of 7-Elevens around the city. The digital vending displays even dole out nutritional and allergen info along with a complete list of ingredients for each menu item.
Currently only available in a single Stockholm subway station, last month the Swedish furniture giant created a temporary vending machine for commuters that sells garlic presses, egg slicers, and other small items (as a way to promote its nearby kitchen pop-up store concept, according to Business Insider Nordic). Here's hoping they expand the concept, permanently, to the US.
Possibly only exciting to anyone who's ever tried to grab a last-minute card-and-scratchies birthday present and found they were sadly sans cash, these increasingly popular self-service vending machines are automating the massively antiquated state-run system around the country. Ohio, for instance, just installed 6,000 lottery ticket vending machines around the state in an effort to adapt to consumer trends, with the first machines being activated on October 29th.
Several colleges around the country (many in California, including Stanford and the UC system) have now installed wellness vending machines that include the "Morning After Pill" along with other emergency female hygiene and health items for students available in a 24-hour-access format. According to the New York Times, the first college to make emergency contraception available through a vending machine was Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania in 2012.
Already through security but forgot to pick up something thoughtful from your trip for the baby/dog/house sitter? No sweat, if you happen to be traveling through one of the eight airports or downtown stations where a SouveNEAR vending machine has been installed: the startup curates "artful souvenirs designed and made locally" by a list of Etsy-esque makers from each metro, currently the Bay Area and Kansas City.
Sunnies (for Snapchat)
More than just a gimmick to try to stay ahead of Instagram Stories, the camera-equipped sunglasses Snapchat sold through vending machines around the country now number more than 150,000 pairs, according to Fortune. The social media spectacles were sold through pop-up vending machines that spontaneously appeared in cities around the country.
T-Shirts & Basics
While a few airports already boast vending machines selling (oft-forgotten) travel must-haves like Calvin Klein underwear, umbrellas, and roll-up ballet flats, fast-fashion favorite Uniqlo recently announced that it will be rolling out ten new dedicated vending machines carrying an assortment of the brand's stylish travel basics from tees to down vests. Conde Nast Traveler speculates high-traffic airports with international terminals like JFK, Houston, and Oakland are a sure thing for first sightings.
Planning ahead for more legalized dispensaries nationwide, two US companies —American Green and Grasshopper — are helping to put marijuana in vending machines. Two successful coin-op pot shops already exist, one since 2015 in Seattle and one since 2016 in Toronto, according to TIME. (Think Target self-checkout for medical marijuana, with employees verifying IDs.)
For more vending machines popping up all over the country, selling everything from violin strings to cupcakes, check out this complementary list compiled this week by the writers at BuzzFeed.