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Vending Machine, What Should I Drink?

They sell umbrellas, flowers and cooked meals, cough up cool drinks after earthquakes and even try to read your mind: they are Japan's five million vending machines.

Scattered across the country, the automated stores are about as ubiquitous as traffic lights and offer an ever-widening, dizzying palette of goods.

Thanks to Japan's low crime rate, companies have placed them everywhere, from neon-lit city centres to the icy summit of Mount Fuji, with little risk of them being burgled and relieved of their rich coin vaults.

"They are so convenient, I wish I had one in my room," said 18-year-old Tokyo resident Hibiki Miura, who like many Japanese finds it hard to imagine modern civilisation without the handy helpers.

Japan has 2.5 million vending machines that sell just beverages -- about one for every 50 people. They generated a staggering 27 billion dollars last year, says the Japan Vending Machine Manufacturers' Association.

Machines that sell other miscellaneous goods -- from cigarettes to toys, flower bouquets and even printed oracles at Shinto shrines -- raise the total to more than five million, according to industry estimates.

In the world's most saturated vending machine market, providers are competing ever more fiercely to be noticed above the machines' neon-glare and the clatter of change with novel new offerings.

Dole Japan, Ltd. turned heads when it set up a banana vending machine at a Tokyo train station in June, selling chilled bananas for 130 yen (1.5 dollars) each or a bunch of about five for 390 yen.

"You can buy bananas at convenience stores or supermarkets, but people seem to find it fun to buy them from a vending machine," said Dole spokeswoman Hiromi Ohtaki. "People think it's fun to watch, fun to buy and fun to eat."

Some machines provide added social functions, such as news flashes and baseball scores on electronic display boards.

Coca-Cola (Japan) Co. says 5,100 of its 980,000 machines will roll out drinks free in the wake of major earthquakes and other disasters.

Most recently, a machine provided 680 bottles of beverages to people who fled their homes in the northern prefecture of Hokkaido when a quake in distant Chile triggered a tsunami alert  for Japanin February.

At the other end of the Japanese archipelago, in a remote village of subtropical Okinawa island, Coca-Cola says it supports a nature survey with vending machine-mounted microphones that record chirps of rare birds.

The very latest in high-tech vending machines even attempts to make the consumer's choice for them, using a camera and software that recognises a person's sex and 10-year age band with about 75 percent accuracy.

Using the point-of-sale data, the machine at Tokyo's Shinagawa train station may look at a person and suggest a sports drink or a chilled can of espresso based on its accumulated marketing wisdom.

Trying the machine recently, Hidemi Mio, 48, said that after scrutinising her with its digital brain for a second, it recommended three drinks on its 47-inch touch-screen display, including a flavoured tea.

Happily, the machine guessed correctly, picking one of her favourites, she said, adding that she would take on board the machine's suggestions again in future, especially "when I can't make a decision".

Payments can be made with swipe cards and cellphones as well as cash.

To protect consumers' privacy, images are deleted immediately, but data on sex, age and purchasing choice is accumulated, said Toshinari Sasagawa, general manager for sales at JR East Water Business Co, which operates the machine.

"We've got data on what was sold, where and when. On top of that, we'll get information on customer attributes, which we hope to use for a better product lineup and development," he said.

The machine has been a hit since it was set up last month, said Sasagawa. Its sales are triple that of any of the other 50 vending machines in the same station, he said while declining to disclose exact sales volume.

JR East Water Business, wholly owned by the giant railway operator, plans to set up 500 units of the "next-generation" machine over the next two years.

In future, vending machines may increase their "communications with people," Sasagawa said. "We want customers to experience and enjoy a purchasing process that is different from simply buying from a vending machine."

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Published on 10/3/10

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