China: Vending machines are transforming into smart storefronts

Imagine walking into a Shenzhen subway station to grab a bite. Expecting to be able to buy a can of soda or a bag of chips, your options suddenly prove to be far more exotic. Yes, all the basic snack items are available, but so are pastries, tofu, cooked noodles, prepared eggs, fresh vegetables and French fries.

In China, vending machines are becoming full-service convenience stores. Larry Song, sales manager at the Thintop Technology Company, a Shenzhen-based manufacturer of vending machines: “Before, customer demand was simple. People just wanted water, cola etc .... But now they buy all kinds of things.”

The new vending machines now offer their customers toys, books, cosmetics, electronics and pet identification tags. In the future, e-commerce giant Alibaba wants to bring automotive vending machines to market that “will make buying cars as easy as buying a can of Coke,” Alibaba representative Yu Wei was quoted as saying.

While the goods are varied, the idea remains the same: put some money into the machine, and out comes the product. But what’s different is the vending machines themselves: they are smart and sophisticated. Modern, energy efficient machines are network connected, which enables operators to monitor inventory. Sensors track foot traffic and consumers’ buying patterns based on time of day, day of week and corresponding weather conditions. describes how they are also more social. Customer engagement is enhanced by interactive audio, video, and touchscreen functions. Based on demand, prices are adjusted remotely in real-time. And via apps, frequent shoppers earn free drinks and other rewards.

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