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23 Feb 2020 Updated 25 Feb 2020

Cactus and coffee on the go? Vending machines now dispense uncommon array of goods

The Straits Times Hannah Bock

Gone are the days when all vending machines sold were cold drinks or snack bars.

Today, many are custom-made to dispense a variety of items, from frozen salmon and chilli crab to books and even live plants.

Many consumers enjoy the ease of receiving purchases at the touch of a button.

 

In Singapore, the retail value of vending machines has increased in recent years, rising by about 15 per cent from $91 million in 2014 to $104.5 million last year, according to market research provider Euromonitor International.

 

In particular, machines selling hot meals seem to be a preferred option in light of the coronavirus outbreak.

 

"People are turning to vending machines to avoid human interaction while getting their meals and coffee," says Ms Janice Lim, 34, chief executive for vending machine operator Kalms.

 

Since the end of last month, Kalms has seen an average rise of about 30 per cent in sales of its coffee and ready-to-eat meals, which range from local favourite dishes to Japanese bento boxes.

 

They are available at more than 200 machines islandwide, mostly in office buildings and public areas such as shopping malls and ActiveSG sports centres. Only a handful of machines are in Housing Board estates.

 

However, other retailers which typically benefit from high footfall have been adversely affected.

 

Succulent vendor Green Thumb x, for example, has six machines, all in shopping malls. Business slowed down as crowds thinned, picking up again only as Valentine's Day approached.

 

Nevertheless, setbacks such as these are a relatively small cost for retailers to bear, considering the money saved on rental and labour fees.

 

Some of them also receive support from government agencies such as Enterprise Singapore. Its Enterprise Development Grant, for instance, was launched in 2018 and encourages the adoption of technology and innovation to increase productivity.

 

Here are three vending machines which sell unusual items.

 

PRESS FOR A POTTED PLANT

 

In Green Thumb x's six vending machines, special ventilation systems and strips of LED lights keep the succulents healthy till they are purchased.

 

When owner Joey Tan, 44, first set up Green Thumb x online in 2018, he spent hours painstakingly labelling and listing hundreds of succulents.

 

Naturally, even plants of the same species differ, but customers wanted to know exactly what they were buying.

 

"Now, what they see is what they get," he says. "They trust the machines more."

 

Each machine costs Green Thumb x around $300 to run monthly, which is on a par with running an online shop and much less than the rent of a physical store.

 

Green Thumb x, which has three staff members including Mr Tan, earns a profit of $1,500 to $2,000 a month for each machine.

 

Each potted plant sells for between $8 and $25, depending on the number and type of succulents.

 

A plant lover himself, Mr Tan also monitors the conditions in the machine via temperature and humidity sensors. The optimal temperature for the plants is 27 deg C.

 

He adds: "They can survive around four weeks without water. But we take the 'stressed' plants out whenever we replenish our stock, so we can groom them back to health in our nursery."

 

COLLECT EZ-LINK CARTOON CARDS AND CHARMS

 

In September last year, the first EZ-Link card vending machine was launched at Bugis Junction with an exclusive Pusheen the Cat card.

 

It was such a hit, the machine had to be restocked seven times on its very first day.

 

Now with one more machine at Bugis Junction and another at Junction 8 in Bishan, people can easily get their hands on EZ-Link's latest cartoon cards and charms any time.

 

Both machines at Bugis Junction are open 24 hours a day, while the one at Junction 8 is open from 10am to 10pm daily.

 

The merchandise, which features beloved characters such as Gudetama and Hello Kitty, have always had a cult-like following.

 

Prices for the EZ-Link cards range from $5 to $10, while the EZ-Link charms sell for between $14.90 and $29.90.

 

EZ-Link says the machines bring their products closer to customers, and sales continue to be very healthy, with about 40 products sold via more than 10,000 transactions since September.

 

Currently, the Line Friends summer heat EZ-Charms and EZ-Link cards as well as Hello Kitty EZ-Charms are available at Bugis Junction and Junction 8.

 

"As the machines are mobile, they can also be easily deployed wherever demand is high," says Mr Tan Teck Seng, head of product sales at EZ-Link.

 

Ms Sharon Yap, a receptionist, says she is an avid collector of the merchandise and "has bought practically every design the machine has to offer".

 

"I like that the machines are accessible 24 hours a day," the 48-year-old adds. "I pop by every now and then to see if they have restocked any of the old designs I may have missed out on."

 

GET HALAL BABY FOOD 24/7

 

Business owner Adilah Latip used to receive calls from expectant mothers late at night, anxiously asking if they could drop by her place to pick up bottles of date juice under her Alkurma brand.

 

They were about to go into labour and the premium Arabian Ajwa dates are supposed to facilitate the childbirth process.

 

She first opened DHaqq.sg as an online store for mothers and babies in 2015, but customers began requesting that she open a physical store as well.

 

But the 35-year-old, who is a mother of three, chose vending machines instead as they require less manpower.

 

"It's very convenient because my husband or I just drive over to refill the stock as needed," she says. They run the business full-time together.

 

She now has two machines, one outside Giant Hypermarket at IMM mall and another outside White Sands shopping centre. The latter is accessible 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

 

DHaqq.sg owns the machines but rents the space from the malls, whose management decides where to locate them.

 

Since the end of last month, sales have been especially high, as mothers seem to be stocking up on baby food and buying juices to strengthen their immunity.

 

All its items are certified halal and range in price from $4.50 for a packet of rice sticks to $35 for a box of Tara juice, a pomegranate-flavoured health beverage.

 

"People are always having babies," she adds, with a laugh. "And there are few places which sell halal baby food, so our demand is quite consistent."

 

Source: The Straits Times  © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.