Why does Japan get all the cool vending machines, anyway?


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I went to a Valley shopping mall in LA for the first time in several years yesterday, and discovered that they have a caviar vending machine .

(The gizmag article is slightly out of date. The $500/oz Russian beluga can now be had in a more economical pack, offering 10 ounces for $2500. Credit cards only.)

There was iPhone accessories vending machine, too, but that didn’t seem nearly as fun. (-:

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I had assumed that the differences in machines and content was mostly because of consumer tastes. The vandalism angle never occurred to me! But thinking back to my time in NYC, I don’t recall seeing any vending machines on the street.

Not smashing random vending machines isn’t so much a Japan thing as a non-New Yorker thing.

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I believe a big part of the prevalence of vending machines (and convenience stores) in Japan has to do with their strict system of price controls and minimum prices. This results in a can of Coke or whatever being basically the same price in a vending machine or a supermarket, giving people no incentive not to shop at vending machines, or not at convenience stores.


The Kocha Kaden is one my favorites! I love how it comes in a hot can.

I think Ashcroft might be a bit off base on the long history of unattended stalls having something to do with. Those are pretty common anywhere rural. There’s one right around the block from my house. Its very common here for farmers, or even families with large gardens to put out a stall with a coffee can or cash box for self service. This time of year its mostly fire wood, and that’s pretty much the major way to buy and sell firewood here. And I’m in the NYC metro area.


it is weird that your Indonesian friend surprised about what had happened to these machines in Paris. Because the same thing would happen too in Indonesia.

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It probably depends on what sort of town/neighborhood he lives in. I’m assuming Indonesia is like many countries, there are places where people will steal the wheels off of your car, and other places (richer or more rural places) where you and the vending machines are fairly safe. My impression is that all of Japan belongs in the latter category.


That would be David Sedaris’ Indonesian friend.

I’m old enough, just, to remember when New York City subways had chewing gum vending machines.

They were built to nest inside the I-beams you see on the platforms. The were maybe 2’ high, and built like the proverbial brick shit house, if the shit house was steel.

They had little windows in which you could see the four - or - five chain-like tracks the sticks of gum (about the size of Chiclet) were stuck in. You put a penny in a slot corresponding to the track with the flavor you wanted, and turned a knob to make the track advance downwards, pitching the stick into a funnel and out into a little dish on the outside of the machine.

P.S. Just remembered: One of the flavors offered was “pepsin.” Some kind of digestive thing?


Resident of Japan since 97 and part of a household that now owns a cigarette vending machine, allow me to offer some thoughts.

Q: Why are vending machines so common in Japan?

A: In either densely populated urban environments or sparsely populated rural environments they offer an economic method for merchants to sell high volume/low margin items 24/7 without the expense of keeping the retail store open all the time. Amazing how such a simple answer can be provided without resorting to any sort of orientalism!

Q: Why do vending machines in Japan sell so many different things?

A: As with any retail channel, vending machines will sell whatever people will buy and are a very easy channel to test new or seasonal products. Hot ginger ale didnt do very well and did not come back this winter. Too bad, I liked it. Cheap umbrellas never go out of season so you find those machines at some major train stations.

Q: Why is there a low instance of vending machines being damaged in Japan?

A: In general there is a very low rate of this sort of crime in Japan. A full answer would be beyond the scope of a BBS comment but let it boil down to cultural standards.

Put it where the sun doesn’t shine Colin Marshall. This sort of end comment adds zero value and provides no insight at all. I’d be willing to suppose that the lower instances of vending machines in certain parts of the US probably have more to do with less restrictive retail trade laws which allow more shops to stay open 24hrs as well as 24hr transportation infrastructure in major cities, both of which are not equivalent between the two countries.

Maybe they just had a kind of respect for such a hallowed device.

A more likely explanation is that generally even in urban environments in Japan, people still know other families around them and with constant passers by the kids know that there would be consequence for buying alcohol from the vending machine. Believe me, there is nothing “hallowed” about the machines themselves.

Formal price controls don’t exist for things generally sold in vending machines except for cigarettes which have very strict price controls. Selling cigs above or below the set prices will result in losing your license to sell tobacco products and possibly a criminal charge. I know this because when my wife inherited a tobacco sales license and cig vending machine, the local rep from Japan Tobacco came by to explain our duties to us.

For things like drinks which are more common, in the past there was something like unspoken collusion to keep fixed retail prices but these days it is not uncommon for the same sized drink to be found in a range of prices between different vending machines or retail outlets. A 500ml bottle of Coke goes for ¥88 at the supermarket and up to ¥150 in some vending machines in my wife’s hometown. Canned drinks range from ¥100 to ¥130 in vending machines in my neighborhood in Tokyo.

Price variance can be a response to 24hr convenience stores based on a comment made by a neighbor of mine who has four drink machines outside his shop. As for cigarette machines since no price variance is allowed, there are fewer these days now that 24hr convenience stores are allowed to sell cigarettes and use of a vending machine requires a specific ID card issued by Japan Tobacco to “prove” the age of the purchaser.

I barely remember those but they were interesting in design!


The best vending machines we have in the States are in airports. The mini Best Buy comes to mind, as does some makeup/cosmetics machine I saw at BWI recently.

I think my fave vending machine beverege I saw in Japan was Pokari Sweat. Sweat? Yeah. :slight_smile:


I’ve always wondered why nyc subways had such a problem with people spitting gum on to the platform - the whole system is sticky with the stuff. Your description of the vending machines certainly gives an historical, if not present day, explanation for the custom.


Can’t say for sure, but I imagine that an attempt to cut back on those black gum-scabs on the platform floors may have been at least part of the reason the gum machines were pulled.

I wish those machines were available somewhere, as a novelty purchase. But you’d have to be able to buy the non-standard gum sticks to fill it . . .

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Wait . . . David Sedaris went to Japan, the “Smoker’s Paradise” to QUIT smoking?!! And succeeded?

Love David Sedaris and this confirms that he is truly perverse . . .


Unfortunately, I believe it´s more of a non-big-city-anywhere-outside-a-few-East-Asian-countries thing.

Smashing them does not work. Plexiglass and all that.

You lay them on their front, and then pick up the legs and shake some, and then right the machine again, and magically everything has come out.

If you can get the little door open. Mostly we did this just to jam up the door, because the snack selection was crap.

Citation: was bored university student


Hooligan! :wink:


I’m not sure how spoken (or unspoken) the collusion was, but it does seem typical to have formalized price controls in a surprising number of market segments (including books, DVDs, CDs, and the like—prices for these on Amazon.co.jp are no cheaper than your local market, though they may dodge this by offering credit towards future purchases based on how much you spend).

I believe that the elongated supply chains and complex nets of intermediate wholesalers in Japan (which helps ensure high employment rates) help make it difficult for large businesses to seriously undercut smaller operators. And since Japanese retailers don’t seem to buy into the concept of loss leaders (or are prohibited by law from engaging in these practices), there is remarkably little pricing variance. I do know that when I lived in Japan it was possible to go to a supermarket that stocked import goods and buy cans of soft drinks imported from the US (including Dad’s Root Beer as well as Coke) for 35 yen per can when you would be lucky to find Japanese-made Coke for under 100 yen per can (which is what the same store sold Japanese-made Coke for). Given that Coke isn’t exactly light and the USA isn’t exactly close, it was pretty ridiculous that Coke from the USA was one-third the price of locally-bottled product.

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