The Vending Machine Revolution
They aren’t the most exciting piece of technology out there, but the advanced contraptions popping up in airports and elsewhere could redefine how we consume, well, everything
November, a new genre of YouTube video emerged. The premise was simple: Vloggers documented their long and often trying journeys to pay tribute to a big metal box as it traveled across the United States, from Venice Beach to Catoosa to the Grand Canyon to Manhattan.
No matter where it is shot, each video leads to the same scene: The protagonist comes face to face with a bright-yellow, rectangular “bot” and its single blinking video-screen eyeball. He or she pushes one of three colorful, bulbous buttons, which transforms the eye into a screen superimposing Snapchat’s latest product — video recording glasses called Spectacles — onto his or her face. The quest concludes with a financial transaction: a dip of the credit card, an R2-D2-esque beep-boop-bop, and the bot’s flashing mouth spitting out a pair of the precious shades. As a nod to one of Snapchat’s original face filters, it also prints a rainbow-colored receipt for the $130 purchase.
Though this whimsical bot was designed to build hype for Snap’s first hardware product, its presence was reason enough to endure the long drives, lines, and — in the case of the Grand Canyon location — helicopter flights. “The Snapbot is real. I touched it,” YouTube star Julien Solomita said, in awe, to his camera after buying two pairs of Spectacles on the Santa Monica Pier. “I’ve never seen anything like that.”
But the concept was all too familiar to vlogger Krispyshorts, who waited five hours in the cold at the bot’s NYC location. “You just gotta go up, put your credit card in, and it comes out in the kiosk,” he said in his video. “Like a vending machine.”
Snap’s Spectacles rollout may have been the most successful gadget announcement of 2016, but the marketing campaign also managed to drag another, slightly more mature tech product into the spotlight, one that’s older than the company’s 26-year-old CEO, Evan Spiegel.
Among the crowd of vloggers, Snapchat superfans, and tech journalists who flocked to Snap’s Fifth Avenue storefront in November was 29-year-old native New Yorker Adam Gartenberg. He wasn’t there to Periscope his experience or even purchase Spectacles, but to inspect the magical vessel that delivered them.
“I was that guy that was going on the side of the machine, going on the bottom, trying to go on top,” Gartenberg said. “I wanted to see everything: what they did to build it, the software, how they paid for it — all that stuff.”
Such details are important to Gartenberg because he is the vice president of business development at Vengo, a vending machine startup that designs and distributes metal wall fixtures with touch screens that dispense everything from PowerBars to eyeliner in hotels, gyms, and colleges around the U.S. His company is one of the most prominent members of the vending industry’s new guard, a small but innovative group of businesses that have tapped into new technological and marketing potential for the decades-old concept. Whether it’s a matter of gathering information on customers, giving people a reason to tweet about a product, or simply establishing a brand’s presence in a bustling location, these companies have begun to reimagine the vending machine as a malleable and commanding vehicle for advertising.
The Vengo is by no means as interactive (or high budget) as the Snapbot, but it’s a far cry from the dusty, hulking soda and candy dispensers of yore. Even using the words “vending machine” to describe the product irks Gartenberg.
“I hate the phrase because if I say that phrase to you, you’re thinking of an old box, and it’s got the coils and it’s got a quarter slot,” he said. “I want to go so far away from that.” He and others I spoke to prefer “retail experience” as a replacement term.
Vengo machines outside the lobby bathrooms at the Hudson Hotel in Manhattan (Vengo)
I’m not sure what an old-school vending machine oligarch is supposed to look like, but I can’t imagine it’s like Gartenberg. We met outside the bathrooms in the Hudson Hotel lobby, where one of his company’s touchscreen-equipped boxes, decorated in the style of a Roy Lichtenstein painting, is attached to a brick wall. Gartenberg looked like someone at a Kanye West concert: white sneakers, loose gray pants that approach the category of “fashion sweats,” a hoodie beneath his navy Stussy bomber jacket — all finished off with some leather man-bracelets. His square, wire-rimmed glasses framed a handsome face with a beard that was a few days past a five o’clock shadow. While explaining things, he had a tendency to play with his hair, which was hidden beneath a black, labelless hat the day I met him. When we sat down in a pair of silver chairs to talk, he placed his iPhone 7 and earbuds on the table face up to reveal an unrelenting flow of Snapchat and Slack notifications.
You may have seen Vengo on Shark Tank last year, when company cofounders Brian Shimmerlik and Steven Bofill secured a whopping $2 million investment. But if you haven’t, here’s a rundown of the company’s business model: Its slim, patented boxes hang in public spaces like picture frames, holding up to 100 items each. Vengo doesn’t stock these vessels, so it sells them to major vending operators like Canteen, which have the resources and staff to do that. The company instead makes money by controlling the advertisements on each box’s touchscreens along with a portion of the products that they sell. A brand like Kiehl’s will pay to have its product featured for the sake of exposure and the ability to collect data on how its products are selling. When customers approach, they might be prompted to take a selfie with the company’s logo and post it on Facebook in exchange for a lotion sample. Or a person might be asked to take a survey. Either way, the encounter is an invaluable way for brands to momentarily wrestle a consumer away from his or her busy day for some light brand promotion.
“It’s so freaking hard now to get attention,” Gartenberg said. “Everyone’s face is in their phone. But when you say: ‘Hey, listen, if you take this survey, the product will fall out in the next eight seconds,’ it becomes incentivization. As opposed to being on a browser, where it’s: ‘Hey, take this survey and we’ll ship something over to your house.’ There’s an immediacy game here.”