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A new breed of vending machine

Sure they can still dispense candy and coffee, but with a high-tech twist

By Taryn Luna
Globe Correspondent / September 14, 2011

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Say goodbye to frustrating vending machines that need a kick to release your treats or all too often steal your quarters.

The next wave of vending technology features 47-inch touchscreen displays, accepts credit cards, and serves hot java made in French presses on command.

The National Automatic Merchandising Association kicked off a seven-city tour at the Prudential Center Plaza earlier this week handing out free drinks and snacks to get passersby to experience 20 of the most innovative vending machines in the United States. The tour heads to New York City tomorrow.

“The idea is to make vending more accessible to the public and more fun, dynamic, and exciting,’’ said John Healy, of Healy & Schulte, the association’s marketing firm, who helped organize the event.

Inspired by a recent study that showed Generation Y, or 18- to 29-year-olds, prefer vending machines over convenience stores, drugstores, and grocery markets, the association hit the streets for the first time in its 75-year history to breathe new life into an industry that hasn’t evolved much in the past three decades.

A star of the show is the diji-touch, a product of Kraft, Samsung, and vending machine maker Crane Merchandising Systems. The machine features a 47-inch LCD touchscreen display that shows a 360-degree digital view of the product, offers an icon to bring up nutritional facts on the screen, and allows customers to buy more than one item at a time with cash or credit.

The diji-touch, which is in 22 locations in Boston and sells traditional vending products from Tic Tacs to M&M’s, has tripled the sales of a conventional vending machine since it was introduced in March 2010, according to Frank Guzzone of Kraft.

Guzzone came up with the idea for the machine a few years ago as he waited all night in line outside a Circuit City to buy a Wii for his grandson and happened to strike up a conversation with a Samsung employee next to him. Guzzone said the machine “grabs your attention more than any retail operation ever could.’’

Canteen Corp., the maker of the 2bU machine, is trying to change the unhealthy image of vending machines.

The company provides all-natural options and has icons on its touchscreen display for gluten-free, organic, kosher, and vegan snacks.

Amy Black, owner of Skinny Jeans Fitness in Spokane, Wash., who was passing by the tour, said she thinks gyms could profit from vending machines like the 2bU that cater to health-conscious individuals.

“A lot of gyms don’t have vending machines anymore because none of the products are healthy,’’ she said.

The 6 million vending machines in the United States, which tally about $45 billion in annual sales, mainly provide customers with traditional products like Doritos, Coca-Cola, and Twizzlers. Some machines are branching out like Redbox, which offers one-day movie rentals, and Utique, a machine found in hotels and airports that sells products from makeup to gadgets like headphones and allows customers to watch video demonstrations before making a purchase.

But in Japan, where there are the same number of vending machines despite a population half the size, customers can buy nearly everything available in a retail store, including fresh vegetables grown in the machine and underwear.

Dan Mathews, executive vice president and chief operating officer of the National Automatic Merchandising Association, said vending machines make more cultural sense for Japan, where people have significantly smaller living space and don’t have the capacity for a lot of groceries and vandalism isn’t as big a problem.

Vending machines became popular in the United States in the 1940s during a manufacturing boom, when more Americans were working in factories and vending machines represented a convenient way to grab snacks, drinks, and cigarettes.

Over the years vending machines spread to more offices, hotels, hospitals, colleges, and schools and expanded beyond coffee, candy, cigarettes, and cold beverages.

But it wasn’t long before vending machines started to get a bad rap as being unreliable. In a recent study conducted by the association, 75 percent of respondents said they have had a negative experience with a vending machine.

“We’re trying to change the stereotypes to say those were your grandfather’s vending machines and not the new products you see today,’’ Mathews said.

Now, the movement to digitize machines is revamping the entire industry from the user interface to the warehouse where the products are stocked.

Wireless signals sent from the machine tell the warehouses which products are running low. When an operator arrives at the warehouse to pick up products, the technology allows the truck to be filled based on the driver’s route in the exact order of the columns in the machine.

In most cases, technology reduced the number of vending machine trucks on the road by 20 to 25 percent, Mathews said.

“It’s more interactive, more hip and cool,’’ he said. “But that technology also enables them to work much better to offer a wider variety of products and improve productivity.’’

And the future is just as innovative. In the next few years, the industry will expand payment opportunities, allowing customers to swipe their cellphone instead of a credit card.

Taryn Luna can be reached at