Nappies and super ‘ice-cold’ drinks: Japan’s vending machine operators try new products to attract consumers

The spread of corner shops throughout Japan is posing a threat to sales by vending machines

PUBLISHED : Monday, 26 June, 2017, 2:52pm
UPDATED : Monday, 26 June, 2017, 11:09pm

Japanese vending machine operators have recently been seeking new ways to expand their sales under the pressure of competition from corner shops that offer an increasing variety of products.

Japan has a staggeringly high density of vending machines on its streets – about 4.9 million of them across the country, equivalent to more than one per person in countries such as Ireland or New Zealand.

About half of these units sell drinks, and annual sales stood at nearly 5 trillion yen (US$45 billion) at the end of 2016, according to the Japan Vending Machine Manufacturers Association.

But the spread of corner shops throughout the country is posing a threat to sales by vending machines, prompting operators to find unique or unconventional ways to expand their functions.

One such example is a vending machine installed in a nursery at a shopping centre in Yokohama that sells drinks and nappies. Drink manufacturer Kirin Holdings and household product maker Kao developed the machine along with a charity that supports parents.

They put the idea into practice after fathers told the Yokohama-based charity Comachiplus that it would be convenient to be able to buy nappies from a vending machine when they forget to take them with them when they go out with their babies.

According to the shopping centre run by Aeon Retail, the vending machine has sold about 30 nappies a month since being installed in March.

The Kirin group has already deployed vending machines that allow users to donate to charities by buying items from the machines.

The group, which has supported activities advocating early detection and treatment of breast cancer for years, has installed “pink-ribbon” vending machines elsewhere. Part of their sales proceeds have been donated to a fund promoting pink ribbon movements aimed at raising awareness of breast cancer.

The drinks maker has also set up vending machines linked to support for developing football in Japan, as well as others for local Japanese businesses.

Another drink maker, Asahi Soft Drinks, has launched vending machines that offer “ice-cold” drinks which are kept at around 1 degree Celsius compared to around 5 degrees in conventional machines.

“As we are expecting a scorching summer this year, I hope more people will buy [from our machines],” said a company official.

JR East Water Business, meanwhile, has installed what it calls an “innovation vending machine”. It is coupled with a phone application that allows buyers to pay for items beforehand and even gives a discount. They can get the products by holding their phones over the machine.

The machine is also compatible with other electronic payment systems used for public transport. An official in charge of the business said the railway company plans to install more of units in its business areas.