The march of the vending machines - Stewart Arnold

Anyone who has visited Japan will come away with a view of how differently they do things there. Often, one observation is just how many vending machines there are.

Could we import the Japanese passion for vending machines as a solution to staff shortages?
Could we import the Japanese passion for vending machines as a solution to staff shortages?

In Japanese cities, vending machines are everywhere – inside and outside railway stations, in front of shops, down side streets, in both residential and commercial areas.

Japan has the highest density of vending machines of any country in the world. There is approximately one vending machine per 23 people. The five million vending machines in total generate annual sales of more than £50bn.

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In fact, there are so many machines the market is thought to be saturated. In other words, there is literally no room to install more.

Almost anything can be bought from Japanese vending machines. Soft drinks, of course, but also hot drinks, sweets of all kinds, soup, ready meals, comic books, umbrellas, phone chargers and even saké.

The question then is why so many? It is fair to say that Japanese people have a fascination with automation, indeed with gadgets in general. You only have to think of the technological innovations that have come out of Japan in the past generation, especially in terms of robotics.

However, there is a bigger reason and one which is relevant to the situation we face in this country through Brexit and the after effects of the virus. That is an increasing labour shortage.

Japan has a declining birthrate and low levels of immigra-tion which makes labour scarce and expensive so it is much less labour intensive to visit the vending machines from time to time to make sure they are refilled.

Several reports from different sectors in the UK over the past few weeks have highlighted acute staff shortages. Companies face the choice of either paying staff more (although there are only so many potential employees available) or move towards delivery systems less reliant on this decreasing pool of people.

Automation in manufacturing is taken for granted so maybe now is the time to think of how we can incorporate this into our service sector, particularly in hospitality.

Could we import the Japanese passion for vending machines as a solution? It is early days, but it is starting to happen. At least one hotel in London has made a range of items available through vending machines for guests which they say takes the pressure off front of house staff. Conference venues are travelling the same route as a way to provide drinks and food to delegates through the day.

Is it imaginable that rather than queuing at the bar in our local we get (via contactless payment of course) our ice cold bottle of Peroni from a machine? Only time will tell.

Stewart Arnold - Hull University Business School


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James Mitchinson