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Office supplies, snacks on the side

Page 2 of 2 -- 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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