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Office supplies, snacks on the side

For those in a hurry, Staples offers vending machines

Soft drinks, candy bars, ice cream sandwiches -- and ballpoint pens?

Staples Inc. has installed vending machines at Logan International Airport and a handful of college campuses, hoping to learn whether captive consumers in need of emergency office supplies will pay a premium for computer mice, pens, headphones, batteries, or travel-size Monopoly games.

While no one actually used the two red vending machines sitting across from US Airways's ticket counters in Terminal B one afternoon this week, plenty of passers-by stopped to get a closer look at what was inside. Many of them said they welcomed the convenience, even if it often comes at a higher price.

''I would say that it's a darn good thing," said Chris Root of Woods Hole, who passed the Staples machines while on a layover at Logan.

''Most of it looks reasonably priced and it all looks like stuff you could come up short on."

Louise Sawyer, a Boston nonprofit consultant en route to New York, discovered the machines while wandering Terminal B looking for a candy machine.

''I came over here because I was hungry," Sawyer said. ''They've got me right where they need me. It shows that the company is thinking about business travelers."

Staples is just one of many retailers now experimenting with so-called nontraditional vending to sell products at higher prices with lower overhead, said Michael Kasavana, a hospitality business professor at Michigan State University, where Staples has two vending machines.

The ability of vending machines to accept credit cards is driving the trend, as is the appeal of being able to reach consumers at times when traditional retail stores aren't open, he said.

''Cashless payment systems allow you to get a lot more for products," he said. ''People aren't going to necessarily have $50 in their pocket, but they'll use a credit card."

Vision Inc. of Bethesda, Md., has developed machines for companies like McDonald's, which experimented with huge so-called mini convenience store machines in their parking lots, and Playtex Products Inc., which wants to sell its Banana Boat brand of suntan products in vending machines.

''We're trying to bring new brands to the automated retail space. One way to do that is through branded vending machines," said Joe Preston, Vision's president.

Staples's machines look and act just like others where you might buy candy or a bag of chips, with a few added twists -- and some familiar glitches. Products -- from a $60 SanDisk compact flash memory card, a $45 Targus USB optical scroller mini mouse, or a $3 box of Crayola crayons -- are lined up in slots that are identified by a combination of a number and letter.

Slide your cash or swipe your credit card into the appropriate slot on the machine, punch in the location of the item you want, and wait for the metal coils to rotate, dropping your merchandise down behind a door where you can reach in and pick it up.

It's a pretty simple transaction when it works. A reporter using a credit card was able to buy the optical mouse, a $6 pack of Duracell AAA batteries, and the flash memory card with no problem.

Buying a $25 Cross brand ink pen, though, was a no-go. The machine initially rejected two credit card swipes before finally accepting the card and spitting out the pen. But as it fell, the pen's box fell apart, with only the empty box top landing behind the pick-up door and the pen itself on a shelf beyond the reporter's reach.

When told of the glitch, Staples spokeswoman Deborah Hohler said it was the first complaint the company has gotten about its vending machines, which have been in operation for about six months. She noted that a toll-free customer service number is posted on the front of the machines for such problems.

''Obviously, that shouldn't have happened, but if you call that number, they'll completely rectify the situation," she said.

Hohler would not say how many vending machines Staples was testing or their locations, citing company policy against detailing experimental efforts. But vending machines are not Staples's first foray into alternative retail channels. The company once had a handful of retail stores in airports, including Logan, but has since shuttered them.

A clue of the potential scope of the vending-machine experiment is a similar test the company did in 2000, when it put kiosks linked to its website in 20 of its then 1,200 stores. The chain now has 1,600 stores.

Staples would not disclose the cost of the machines, but an interview with airport officials revealed that the company likely subleased either its machines or the space they occupy from All Seasons Services Inc., a Canton company that leases space for 16 Terminal B vending machines from the Massachusetts Port Authority.

All Seasons pays $1,575 a month to Massport, plus the greater of 20 percent of annual vending machine sales of less than $100,000, or 25 percent if sales exceed that amount.

Phil Nay, a district manager for All Seasons, said Staples products have generated moderate sales since they were installed. Office supplies are the most unusual item his company has yet sold in vending machines, Nay said.

Not every consumer was instantly sold on the idea, though.

Elizabeth Malakie, a student from Allston, and her sister, Julie Malakie, of Phoenix, said they'd have no use for the machines under most circumstances.

''If they were in the right place, I'd use it," Elizabeth Malakie said. ''But neither of us use business supplies much."

Keith Reed can be reached at

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