Could ‘smart’ vending machines make convenience stores obsolete?

The traditional convenience store business model has flourished because vending machines have not been able to offer the same products and range of services that a larger format store can offer. However, that could all be changing with the introduction of smarter vending machines that can dispense more formats of product.

A vending machine is an automated machine that provides items such as snacks, beverages, alcohol, cigarettes and lottery tickets to consumers after money or a credit card is inserted into the machine. The first modern vending machines were developed in England in the early 1880s that dispensed postcards. Vending machines exist in many countries, and in more recent times, specialized vending machines that provide less common products compared to traditional vending machine items have been created and provided to consumers.

The earliest known reference to a vending machine is in the work of Hero of Alexandria, an engineer and mathematician in first-century Roman Egypt. His machine accepted a coin and then dispensed holy water. When the coin was deposited, it fell upon a pan attached to a lever. The lever opened a valve which let some water flow out. The pan continued to tilt with the weight of the coin until it fell off, at which point a counterweight snapped the lever up and turned off the valve.

Coin-operated machines that dispensed tobacco were being operated as early as 1615 in the taverns of England. The machines were portable and made of brass. An English bookseller, Richard Carlile, devised a newspaper dispensing machine for the dissemination of banned works in 1822. Simeon Denham was awarded British Patent no. 706 for his stamp dispensing machine in 1867, the first fully automatic vending machine.

The main example of a vending machine giving access to all merchandise after paying for one item is a newspaper vending machine (also called vending box) found mainly in the U.S. and Canada. It contains a pile of identical newspapers. After a sale the door automatically returns to a locked position.

A customer could open the box and take all of the newspapers or, for the benefit of other customers, leave all of the newspapers outside of the box, slowly return the door to an unlatched position, or block the door from fully closing, each of which are frequently discouraged, sometimes by a security clamp. The success of such machines is predicated on the assumption that the customer will be honest (hence the nickname “honor box”), and need only one copy.