Why vending machines could be the grocery retailing trend of the future

Blairgowrie Farm Shop Stuart Retson

Stuart Retson says the machine at Blairgowrie Farm Shop has enabled the farm’s owners to attract a much wider customer base

Frozen goods in a vending machine
The machines are customised and can be chilled or non-chilled

Are vending machines the key to future retail styles? Imagine driving up to a vending machine and buying eggs, vegetables, jam, bread – anything you care to name. This is already a reality for many shoppers at farm shops around the country, while in Russia there have been proposals to take vending one step further with drive-through supermarkets in which drivers choose their groceries from a vending machine

Vending in the UK is still in its infancy – but it looks set to become a much bigger feature, providing an answer to farm gate sales and the desire for local shops.

Stuart Retson, sales and marketing director of Vending by JSR, explains: “I operate an egg production business in Scotland and I wanted to sell eggs direct to the consumer, but we were worried about sales using honesty boxes. I did some research and came across vending machines made in Germany that are used extensively in Germany, Switzerland and Holland on garage forecourts, farms, villages – anywhere that 24/7 sales are needed.”

After speaking with the company and being impressed by its offer, Retson ordered a vending machine for himself, and later for his cousin, who also thought the concept was a great idea. As a result, the company later approached Retson with the suggestion of selling the machines in the UK on its behalf.

“I have been running a pilot scheme for two years to check out the reliability, the company and the relationship,” he explains. “It’s proved very successful and I’m now developing the business nationwide; attending shows and exhibitions. The Farm Shops Association thinks it’s great and is helping promote the idea.”

How it works

Made from stainless steel and hand built in northern Germany, the machines can be chilled or non-chilled. A variety of locker sizes are available, and users can set an individual price for each individual locker. There is a range of payment options – cash, debit cards, contactless cards. The machines can even give cash change if required.

Stuart believes it’s this flexibility that is encouraging companies to try out the system. “The machines are customised,” he points out. “We can build anything from a 10-locker machine to over 100 lockers if necessary. The software is designed to take up to 80 lockers. If you want to start small and then add lockers, it’s easy to do. If you want more than 80 lockers, a simple circuit board change can accommodate this.” 

Proving popular

It’s a concept that’s proving very popular with farmers and community shops. Retson already has 20 machines in operation and enquiries are steadily increasing. Produce being sold in the machines ranges from eggs and potatoes, to fresh vegetables, salads, jams and breads. Sales have increased at every site in which they have been installed, according to Retson, and many of the farmers involved with the vending machines have expanded their range of products throughout the trial period, by adding extra types of fresh produce.  

At Blairgowrie Farm Shop, near Perth, installing a vending machine has enabled the farm’s owners Colin and Jennifer Steele to attract a much wider range of customers. The village had increasingly become a commuter town, with people not returning home until around 7pm – too late to shop locally. Placing a vending machine just outside the store has enabled the Steeles to cater for the evening and Sunday trades, yet without having to open the store.  

Another farmer, Euan Grewar, has expanded his network of vending machines from one to six different locations – including one inside a café, another at a boutique hotel and two within shopping centres.

“It is a big point of interest,” Grewar claims. “People stop, take a look and ask about it. Our customer base is extensive – students buy bags of potatoes because they like the value, while older people buy carrots for their fresh taste.”

Meanwhile, Belgian tomato grower Stoffels was recently nominated for a Fruit Logistica 2016 Innovation Award for its 'Automato', a vending machine-style dispenser for its red, orange and yellow, cherry tomatoes that's suitable for stores, canteens and schools.

Grewar Farm Vending

24/7 convenient solution

Dr Morgaine Gaye, a food futurologist and guest academic lecturer in the UK and Sweden, says vending is moving into new areas in the UK. “We are accustomed to buying a can of coke from a vending machine on a railway platform,” Dr Gaye explains. “Now you can buy bread or a bag of potatoes. It is part of the 24/7 lifestyle. People want fresh food, they want to know where it came from – they want local food.”

Vending is, of course, a highly convenient way to shop at any time of the day or night. “People are looking for flexibility, for traceability,” notes Retson. “They want to know where their food comes from. Young mums can drive up to the machine, jump out without having to take young kids out of the car, buy food and drive away.”  

Consumers buying from vending machine

Drive-through stores next?

Perhaps the ultimate in retail vending styles has been proposed in Russia. Inventor Semenov Dahir Kurmanbievich has applied for a patent for a drive-through grocery supermarket. Watch his video on YouTube.

According to his patent application, the concept solves “the technical problem of improving the quality of customer service while providing maximum convenience and choice of products, reducing time to service customers, cutting the queue time and lowering the time and costs from commercial enterprises associated with the filling and layout of goods”.

He proposes a shop where consumers would drive up to an empty checkout bay, and (while remaining in their car) they reach across to a vertically rotating vending machine, operated by a button, to choose the required products. Products would be placed on a conveyor belt and passed to the checkout operator who places them in bags. When the shopping is complete, the shopper simply drives up to the checkout, pays, takes the bags through the window and departs.

Of course, such a proposal is still very much in the planning stages – but the indications are that retail vending is definitely set to become more visible, as Dr Gaye concludes: “There are some brilliant ideas around the world. Vending is really going to come to the UK in a big way”.

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