Fri, Sep 24, 2010 - Page 5 News List

FEATURE : Japan’s vending machines sell bananas, read minds

AFP , TOKYO

A woman purchases a wrapped, chilled banana from a vending machine in Tokyo on Aug. 25.

PHOTO: AFP

They sell umbrellas, flowers and cooked meals, cough up cool drinks after earthquakes and even try to read your mind: They are Japan’s 5 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 centers 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 civilization 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 US$27 billion last year, the Japan Vending Machine Manufacturers’ Association says.

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 5 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 turned heads when it set up a banana vending machine at a Tokyo train station in June, selling chilled bananas for ¥130 (US$1.50) each or a bunch of about five for ¥390.

“You can buy bananas at convenience stores or supermarkets, but people seem to find it fun to buy them from a vending machine,” Dole spokeswoman Hiromi Ohtaki said. “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 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 Japan in February.

At the other end of the Japanese archipelago, in a remote village of subtropical Okinawa, 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 recognizes 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 scrutinizing her with its digital brain for a second, it recommended three drinks on its 47-inch touch-screen display, including a flavored tea.

Happily, the machine guessed correctly, picking one of her favorites, 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, which operates the machine.

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