[From April Issue 2011]
In Japan, there are many vending machines found at train stations and along the streets. They are also very prominent in downtown areas, where they stand side-by-side. And, they can even be found on rather deserted streets. But Japanese vending machines offer more functions than just offering items for money.
JR East Water Business Co. has installed “next-generation” vending machines at many of its JR East stations. These new machines have new digital displays on which many images and messages can be seen. For instance, after a customer buys a drink, a “Thank you!” message is displayed. These smart-machines can also sense when there is a person standing nearby, and make purchase suggestions, or show other animated images, before displaying all its contents to people standing directly in front of it.
What is most notable about these machines is that they communicate a vast amount of information wirelessly. So, in the event of a natural disaster, a “Give out drinks for free” command can be sent from its Internet server. Furthermore, while users’ private information is not recorded, they can recognize whether a person is a man or a woman, and their approximate age. They do all this using sensors that collect data, then use statistical information such as “Men in their 30s tend to buy sweet drinks in the evening,” to make possible suggestions, which people standing in front of it may then decide to purchase.
“We developed this vending machine with the aim of entertaining customers who buy items through it,” says planning department member MUTO Ayano, “We get responses from our customers saying that ‘It’s interesting,’ or ‘It’s pretty.’ The resulting sales are twice that of a regular vending machine. So, we are getting quite a good reaction.”
Some DyDo Drinko Inc. vending machines offer point card and voice functions. Machines with these installed issue point cards when customers press the “issue a card” button. So, customers who frequent these machines can get a point for each drink they purchase by inserting the point card into a machine. Gifts are then sent to those who redeem cards with enough accumulated points.
The voice function was developed to help more easily explain to customers how the point cards work. But now, the machines can also greet customers according to the time of day, or the season, using their pre-installed calendar functions. For instance, they say “Good morning” in the morning, while also saying “Thank you for being our customer this year” at the year’s end. Some machines can also speak in a Kyoto or Nagoya dialect, with a few even operating in English.
“We consider each vending machine to be a store. So, a vending machine with voice functionality is just a further developed version, ‘a guiding salesperson,’” says KITAGAWA Ryoichiro, a member of the sales planning department, who adds that “We hope that many more people will enjoy communicating with these new vending machines in the near future.”
In Japan, it seems that vending machines are not just item-selling boxes, but box-shaped robots that can also entertain their potential customers.
Text: SAZAKI Ryo