Vending Machines Move Beyond the Candy Bar

The ubiquitous vending machine has long sold snacks to office workers and people on the move. Now they're selling bigger consumer goods in "robotic stores." These are machines that sell items such as iPods, and they may be appearing in a mall near you.

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JOHN YDSTIE, host:

Think of vending machines and this is probably what comes to mind.

(Soundbite of soda vending machine)

YDSTIE: That's the sound of a soda being sold in the NPR lunchroom. Americans pump $30 billion into vending machines every year. And the majority of those sales come from workplace snacking.

Entrepreneurs have long tried selling other items from vending machines, everything from live bait to French fries. And the latest addition to the world of automated sales has just entered the market.

Mr. GOWER SMITH (Founder and CEO, Zoom Systems): We call our stores robotic stores. But you can call them vending, if you like.

YDSTIE: Gower Smith is the president of Zoom Systems, a company that is selling not Diet Coke, but iPods through vending machines, in malls and airports across the country.

A mall in Orange County, California is home to one of Smith's robotic stores. It's a glowing box that looks a lot like a convenience store refrigerator, stuffed full of iPods and accessories. Nearly everyone walking past pauses in front of it, including George Wilson.

Mr. GEORGE WILSON (Mall Shopper): Well, it definitely does have curb appeal, for a mall. I guess my main concern would be if I were to purchase it and it gets stuck, you can't shake this big old machine. What do you do? You know what I'm saying?

YDSTIE: The company says optical sensors will prevent that scenario. But not everyone wants to give up human interaction while shopping. Take 18-year-old A.J. Rodriguez, for instance.

Mr. A.J. RODRIGUEZ (Mall Shopper): I like going to the mall and like talking to people and like looking at them. It's like why I go to the mall all the time. I guess people who don't have any social skills or whatever, they could probably us it.

YDSTIE: While some mall goers are skeptical, Gower Smith says his company recently secured a deal to put the machines in Macy's department stores.

Mr. SMITH: Like any other new technology like ATMs or Internet shopping, over time you'll get increased consumer acceptance.

YDSTIE: It turns out automated shopping has been touted as the wave of the future for centuries. Legend has it the first vending machine was created in 215 B.C. when Greek mathematician Hero devised a contraption t dispense holy water when a coin was dropped into a slot. But it would be more than 2,000 years before the technology really caught on.

In the U.S. it was 1888 when gumball machines first appeared in the New York City subways. Now industry watchers are hoping it's a new era for vending. They say consumers have grown accustomed to buying things over the Internet without getting to touch them first.

This latest generation of vending machines is credit card only. You won't need to stuff in 800 quarters to get that iPod.

This is NPR News.

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