The earliest known record of a machine being used to sell products can be found in the work of Hero of Alexandria, a first-century engineer and mathematician. He designed an early type of vending device that dispensed holy water whenever a coin was inserted into it. The first modern vending machines appeared in the UK during the late Victorian era. Initially these machines only sold postcards, but over the years other items have been gradually introduced such as chocolate bars, stamps and cigarettes.
Vending machines have come a long way since Hero's holy water dispenser and the early Victorian models, and machines that were once the very definition of crude, mechanical simplicity have evolved into sophisticated pieces of equipment that can vend anything from live crabs to lettuce and pizza to caviar. Many vending machines now accept credit card payments, while some now use Cloud-based technology to accept payments via smartphone and enable management of the vending machine from a remote location.
It is beyond food-and-drink vending, however, where the real innovation in automated distribution is to be found. As an example, vending machines are now used to distribute pharmaceutical products in some prisons – not for the convenience of the prisoner, but to help prison wardens ensure that the right medication goes to the right person through the use of sophisticated retinal and fingerprint scanners. Other innovations include a vending machine with face-recognition technology to enable it to recommend hair-growing lotions and shaving paraphernalia to men, and a "remote-pharmacy dispensing" machine where customers can speak to an actual pharmacist via videophone before scanning their ID to receive their prescriptions.
Improving security technology is now one of the principal reasons why a growing number of high street retailers are turning to vending machines to sell their products: Selfridges has experimented with using vending machines to sell its designer jeans following a series of thefts. Increased security also enables retailers to sell things they would not normally sell over the counter to the general public. When you consider the obvious cost saving benefits of running a vending machine rather than employing a salesperson, together with the advanced technology and security features that are now common on high-end vending machines, and it is not difficult to understand why many retailers view automated dispensers as the future of retail.
Many industry experts believe that the combination of security, convenience and cost saving benefits of vending machines will mean that automated dispensers will become an increasingly common aspect of our 24-hour, instant-access lifestyles in the future. As mobile-phone technology improves, payment systems move towards a universal "wave pay" (as with London's Oyster card) and Cloud-based payment and system management features become easier and cheaper to implement, vending points in public and workplaces will be used as places to buy goods directly and also as delivery points for online shopping – a cross between a left-luggage locker and a conventional vending machine.
But until that day arrives, food and drink will continue to be he primary products sold through vending machines. Feast Point's range of high quality vending machines continue to evolve as technology progresses, and we are continuously exploring innovative features and solutions. Our automated catering dispensers are among the most advanced in the industry, and when you consider how far vending machines have progressed since Hero's holy water dispenser and the early Victorian models, you can't help but wonder what we'll be buying from them in the future.