One thing is for sure when you visit Japan; there are vending machines in almost every street you walk. From dispensing simple supplies like basic groceries to weird options like underwear and puppies, there are so many options. There are even vending machines for prayer cards, gifts, and surgical masks. According to a survey by the Japan Vending Machines Association, more than 5 million vending units are spread nationally. This means that there’s a vending machine to serve every 23 individuals.
This is not all. The association argues that at least $60 billion is generated in sales annually by local vending machines. Leading the pack are vending dispensers for fast-moving items like sodas, water, hot foods, candies, and energy drinks. If you observe closely, you’ll notice that vending machines epitomize the Japanese culture. You’ll see print details of the Japanese lifestyle in the design of the vending machines.
Why So Many Vending Machines?
This is an obvious question when you first land in Japan, especially Tokyo. If you compare the streets of Tokyo with places like New York or Dubai, you’ll notice that there are as many vending machines in Tokyo as the tall buildings. This is understandable if you consider these factors:
- Scarce Labor
For a long time now, the Japanese birthrate has been on a decline with the aging population on a rise. There’s also the aspect of fewer immigrants moving to the country. This has made labor to be scarce. As a way to compensate for labor scarcity, Japanese investors are opting for vending machines. These machines require low human input and can run 24/7. According to a macroeconomics book, vending machines in Japan are slowly substituting sales clerks.
- Dense Population
Japan is almost the same size as the State of California. Her population, however, is astonishing. It’s estimated to be 127 million. This is quite impressive knowing that 75% of the country is mountainous. The rugged landscape has pushed most Japanese to the city where they are densely populated. This has opened up opportunities for vending machine investors since a dense population is almost a guaranteed market.
- Extreme Weather
The summer can get unnervingly hot in Japan while the winter can get icy cold. Such extreme temperatures require a quick fix. For example, you need a hot cup of tea or coffee when it’s freezing and a cold soda or water when it’s very hot. Such solutions are readily availed by the numerous vending machines that are found in Japan.
- Cheap Maintenance
Most vending machines in Japan are automated. This means that minimal labor is required to inspect and clean them. You don’t have to pay any salary to an employee as the machines are DIY. Additionally, they suffer very minimal breakdowns. Investors are generally happy with the idea of having to give just a few hours of their time and go back home to wait for the machines to make money.
- Safe Country
Based on a 2010 UN security report, Japan tops the list as the safest country in the world. The security report shows that very few robbery incidences are recorded in Japan. This has made it easy for vending machines investors to set up the units in different places without worrying that someone will vandalize or steal from them. Unlike the United States, most vending machines in Japan are stand-alone.
- Cash-based Economy
Investors like this aspect of vending machines since no one buys on credit. They are guaranteed a stream of cash as long as their vending units are working. The advantage to the consumer is that both coins and Japanese bills are accepted. So, you don’t need a debit card or credit card to buy from vending machines. This makes it easy for someone with as little as 10 yens to make a purchase.
Though Japan is known as a leading automaker, most locals prefer to walk to work, use a bike or catch the train. This is quite common in Tokyo. As a result, the streets are likely to be jammed with commuters. As expected, investors have identified the jammed streets as a selling point. So, they put vending machines along these streets to lure the commuters.
- Convenient Buying
If you get hungry or thirsty suddenly in Japan, there’s always a sense of relief as you are assured the next vending machine is a few meters away. The same goes for OTC drugs and personal hygiene items. Buying from this outlet is faster since there are no lines as it’s normally the case with retail stores. This is a great thing for a busy nation like Japan.
- Robotics Obsession
Japan is historically obsessed with automata. This is according to a 2007 publication by the Japan Times. Considering that vending machines are robotics, it doesn’t surprise that so many resources have been put into their assembly. They are constantly innovating vending machines that are meant to make to substitute human service in most retail businesses.
If you want to buy coffee from a vending machine in the streets, it’ll only cost you 130 yen. If it’s the juice that you want, a 500ml bottle will cost you 160 yen on average. At the airport, where it’s often expensive, you may spend roughly 200 yen on a drink. This is slightly above $2. These prices are way cheaper if compared to buying the same in the United States.
Tips for Buying from a Vending Machine
If you have never used a cash-based vending machine before and you find yourself in Japan, you should arm yourself with these tips:
- Prepare your cash – As mentioned, you need coins or Japanese bills to make a purchase from vending machines in Japan.
- Put cash into the vending machine – You need to identify the cash slot and put your money there. The lights of the machine will illuminate to indicate that the transaction is initiated.
- Select the item you want to buy – Use buttons on the vending machine to pick your item. If you don’t know how to read Japanese characters, just buy a product you are familiar with or one that you can see clearly.
- Collect your change – Don’t leave until you get the change. It’s your right.
Japan is undeniably the world’s leading vending machine nation. With so many vending units spread across the country, you can buy virtually anything found in a retail store or a restaurant. The vending machine technology is increasingly becoming advanced. So, we should expect more vending machine innovations in the future in Japan.