Tasty innovations reignite Japan’s love affair with vending machines

Courtesy of Kenmin Foods Co.
Kenmin Foods Co.’s vending machine to sell frozen foods is seen in Kobe.

OSAKA — As the coronavirus crisis drags on, food producers and restaurants are realizing the value of vending machines to expand their sales channels. The advantage of vending machines goes beyond allowing businesses to sell products 24 hours a day and without face-to-face interaction.

While the number of vending machines nationwide has been on the decline, new technologies being applied now show promise in reinvigorating the sector.

New types of these machines can dispense foods that were previously impractical to sell this way, or just plain unpalatable, including whole frozen meals.

New products

In September, Kenmin Foods Co., a major rice noodle maker, installed a vending machine for frozen foods in front of its headquarters in Kobe. It sells five kinds of items, such as the standard Kenmin Yaki Be-fun rice noodle and the chapche Korean sweet and spicy vermicelli, for ¥500 to ¥600 for two meals.

The company aims to use such vending machines as a new source of revenue as sales at its restaurants have plummeted. Products sold at the vending machine have become popular among people working in a nearby business district, and sales in September were about ¥2.3 million, three times the initial target.

“We would like to install [such vending machines] in other places including our factories and popularize them,” a company spokesperson said.

Akamaru Gyunikuten, a meat shop that operates yakiniku restaurants, also placed a vending machine in front of its restaurant in Yurihama, Tottori Prefecture, in August. The machine sells hamburger steaks using Tottori Wagyu beef, pork offal meat and tongue.

The vending machines used by the two companies go by the name “Dohiemon” and were developed by Tokyo-based Sanden Retail Systems Corp. The machines have four different sizes of shelves inside so that various sizes of products can be stocked. After Sanden released the Dohiemon machines in January, orders poured in from all over the country. Sanden introduced an upgraded model in August that can dispense both frozen and refrigerated goods.

Evolution of beverages

Digital technology is also being used in beverage vending machines.

In April, DyDo Drinco, Inc. started deploying vending machines that allow customers to buy drinks using facial recognition. If customers register their face photos and credit card information with a smartphone app in advance, they can buy items even if wearing a mask. The company aims to install about 2,000 machines, mainly in offices and government buildings.

Coca-Cola (Japan) Co. is increasing the number of vending machines that allow purchases via Bluetooth. By holding a smartphone over a scanner to make a payment, customers don’t have to touch the vending machine until they take out the product. The number of people using the system is increasing as the pandemic drags on, a company spokesperson said.

According to the Japan Vending System Manufacturers Association, the number of vending machines for beverages and foods was about 2.35 million in 2020, down 20% from the peak in 1985. This is due to an increase in convenience stores and drugstores.

“The convenience of vending machines has been reevaluated because of the pandemic,” said Hidehiko Nishikawa, a professor at Hosei University specializing in marketing. “Efforts to increase added value, such as giving points through apps for vending machines, are important to corral customers.”