New Moves Suggest Unattended Retail May Be the Future

November 14, 2017         By: Steven Anderson

Most of us are familiar with the vending machine as a great way to get a cold drink just about anywhere, or a light snack. Increasingly, the vending machine is taking on new and unexpected roles, and may well turn the concept of brick-and-mortar retail into a series of vending machines.

Vending machines are starting to take on some unexpected directions, like last-minute clothes shopping. On a certain level, this isn’t a bad idea; hop a flight for Florida in the winter and you might discover it’s a little colder there than you expect. A sweatshirt or jeans might be called for, and for some vending machines, this is already being done.

One Japanese retailer, Uniqlo, is doing just that; with 10 US cities on the roster, Uniqlo has kiosks in malls and airports featuring down jackets and shirts with heat-retaining capabilities, available from what amounts to large-scale vending machines. More familiarly, we already know of Walmart’s moves on this front, and it’s not alone.

A move between USA Technologies and a firm known as Cantaloupe may step this up even further; Cantaloupe deals in logistics and inventory management processes, which is exactly what an unattended shop needs more than anything…well, except security. With USA Technologies dropping fully $85 million to pick up Cantaloupe—$65 million in cash and the balance in USA Technologies stock—it’s clear USA Technologies is putting one monster bet on unattended retail.

I’m reminded here of the Horn & Hardart Automat; a staple of New York City for decades, the restaurant operated simply enough; a series of coin slots locking various booths where a range of goodies from soup to sandwiches to desserts could be selected, it ran like a restaurant-sized vending machine you ate inside. The problem, of course, was that eventually it took so much cash to get a sandwich there was no sense in it. Enter mobile payments, and the notion of waving your phone at a slot to get a sandwich—or a sweatshirt, or most anything else—suddenly makes sense.

Automated retail has some clear benefits to it—massive overhead savings, for one-but also clear challenges. Those who want to take advantage of it have excellent reason to do so, and increasingly, companies are putting these tactics to work to lower overhead and provide better service.