“It was something new, something different,” says Tomás Smyth, without which Ireland would not have received its first milk dispenser.
Mr Smyth’s Milk Shack sells its Wholey Cow brand of milk in recyclable half-liter and one-liter glass bottles.
The more adventurous can choose from twelve different flavors, from chocolate to banana and salted caramel.
The vending machine opened for business in the middle of a block at the end of March.
“For two months it was crazy, 80 to 90 people lined up here every day,” says Mr Smyth, a dairy farmer in Irish County Louth who has 180 cows with his two brothers.
He says his customers like a local product, with fewer kilometers of transport and that he never has more than a day.
“We have many different farmers across the country who come to chat and see our set-up,” he says. Dairy farmers from Offaly, Meath and Donegal have now visited and followed suit.
The pasteurization equipment and vending machine were supplied by the Italian company DF Italia and cost between € 50,000-60,000 (£ 43,000-51,000).
Mr Smyth joins a growing body of small business owners who are breathing new life into the old vending machine business, amidst Covid and challenges to traditional High Street retail.
Traditional machines serving offices, schools and hospitals have seen their business evaporate while workers, students and visitors have stayed home.
In the UK, of the 24,500 employees who maintain these machines, around 5,000 have been laid off. But innovative and niche machines, which often boast exclusive, healthier and more specialized products, tell a different story.
David Llewellyn, chief executive of the Vending and Automated Retail Association, says automated micro markets have seen growth of 367% last year. These are small convenience stores, without staff and where customers pay via smartphone app or at the unattended cashier.
Meanwhile, sales of healthy snacks (less than 5 percent fat and 0.2 grams of salt) have grown 147 percent from vending machines over the past year, he says.
And the selling options are always expanding. For example, you can now buy fake lashes from a machine (at Lash Loft in Newcastle) and perfume (from Perfumatic in Russia) and even pick up your prescriptions.
Enrico Donà sells prescription vending machines at Pharmaself24 in Vicenza, Italy. He says matching a prepared prescription with the customer is a simple job that a machine can do quite easily.
He claims the machine gives pharmacists more time to devote to customers who need more help.
During Covid, the demand for Mr. Donà’s automatic machines for the collection of prescriptions increased.
Pharmacists see the machine, which takes three to four hours to install, as “one more employee”.
For patients, instead of waiting in line and worrying about opening hours, “you arrive, insert a pin code and withdraw. That’s it, easy,” says Donà.
In April, Rome got its first pizza vending machine – on Via Catania near the La Sapienza university district.
The red contraption bakes and delivers pizzas in three minutes, ranging from margherita to diavola, for a price between € 4.50-6 (£ 3.80-5.10).
Italy has one vending machine for every 145 people, behind only Germany for the popularity of vending machines in Europe.
However, both countries follow Japan, with one car for every 25 people. “They have no vandalism,” notes Llewellyn sadly.
A big change has been the way vending machines accept payments, Llewellyn says. Today, 47% of machines in the UK offer cashless payments, twice as much as they did a year ago.
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And vending machines are increasingly intelligent devices that communicate with central management systems.
So, before route operators leave a depot, they know what each car needs to go into.
Until recently, it was a question of “it’s Tuesday, so let’s go here,” says Llewellyn.
Some products are better suited for sale to others. For something like perfume, which can be distributed in concentrated form and then reconstituted in the machine, many miles of travel and packaging can be saved, points out Manish Shah, chief executive of UK unmanned retail company Aeguana.
Andrea Goswell, commercial director of vending machine manufacturer Westomatic, points out that many of us carry reusable water bottles around.
Dispensing beverages in these reduces plastic waste, he says.
Its “Hydration Station” allows you to fill your bottle with triple filtered chilled juices and is operated by hovering the mouse over a button – you don’t even need to press it.
The biggest challenge in the industry has been to eliminate refrigerant gas from R134-a, previously the most common refrigerant. R-134a is an important greenhouse gas: one gram has the same warming potential in the atmosphere as 1,410 grams of carbon dioxide.
Vending machine manufacturers are moving to use carbon dioxide instead. Ironically, it is a more environmentally friendly refrigerant, although it operates at pressures five times higher than the gas in older systems. “That conversion was pretty hard work,” says Ms. Goswell.
The pandemic and the race for sustainability are changing the vending machines we see everywhere, says Donà.
“There are a number of challenges and the solutions aren’t that easy to find. But our technology can benefit and change what we’re doing in a much better way.”
- Dairy farming
- Coronavirus pandemic
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