SINGAPORE - Vending machines have been popping up all over town in the last several years and they spew out more than just drinks and snacks.
Over the years, the range of merchandise peddled by these machines has expanded.
So what can you get from a vending machine these days? From N95 masks, towels and shopping vouchers to cut fruits and hot meals. And, yes, even gold bars at places such as Marina Bay Sands and Resorts World Sentosa.
Users love the convenience, although some are wary of eating food dispensed from a machine.
While operators acknowledge challenges such as the high costs of the machines, finding a good location and the need for repairs when the machines break down, most of the nine that SundayLife! spoke to say they decided to sell their goods through vending machines because they require little labour cost to maintain.
Says Mr Dexter Tan, 38, owner of UC Vending, which operates a machine dispensing towels, shampoo and body wash at Sengkang ActiveSG Sports Centre: "Shops can sell only during opening hours. They also need to pay staff to man the shop.
"By using vending machines, I can sell 24/7 and need manpower only when I have to replenish the products."
Since 2008, JR Vending has been operating machines that dispense hot meals such as hor fun, spaghetti and curry chicken with rice. It now operates more than 40 such machines in places such as universities, factories and army camps. Its most popular machines can dispense up to 40 hot meals a day.
Says its general manager Paul Ng: "For those staying in camp or studying in universities, where can they get food after the canteen closes? Vending machines ensure they can buy food at any time of the day.
"Our machines accept coins and notes, so customers won't be short of change to buy our items."
Five machines here even dispense gold and silver bars that come in weights ranging from 1g to 20g, with animals or other designs engraved on them.
The company behind the machines, Asia Gold ATM, saw potential for golddispensing ATMs in Singapore as the country is visited by thousands of affluent tourists, the company's main target demographic.
Three months ago, four machines dispensing N95 masks were installed by technology company 3M Singapore.
Its managing director Arthur Fong says: "The 3M team was inspired by Japan, which sells a great variety of products via automated vending."
It also operates seven vending machines dispensing stationery such as sticky tape and Post-it pads at Nanyang Technological University and Temasek Polytechnic.
Operators say a vending machine can cost from $4,000 to a five-figure sum. Securing a suitable location can also be a challenge because of competition from other companies.
Those who use vending machines love the convenience.
Says Ms Teo Jing Yu, 23, a fresh graduate from the National University of Singapore: "While writing my honours thesis last year, I was often at the library and frequently ate toasted sandwiches from the vending machine in the library for lunch or dinner.
"I practically lived on those sandwiches for half a year. The canteen is about 400m away, but I'm lazy to walk."
Safety manager Darajit Daud, 55, bought a cup of cut watermelon from a vending machine at Changi General Hospital last month.
"The visual display inside a vending machine is very enticing. Buying from machines is easy, convenient and there's no fuss," he says. "I'm also confident that the fruits are fresh and replenished daily."
But not everyone likes food dispensed from a machine.
Marketing manager June Lee, 38, once ate a toasted sandwich from a machine and thought it tasted "weird and preserved, like canned food".
"It wasn't appetising and I will eat it again only if I am very hungry."
She is fine with buying non-food items from vending machines though.
She says: "My family bought towels, shampoo and body wash from vending machines three times this year when we went swimming. "The towels come in handy if you forget to bring yours. The shampoo also smells nice."
This article was first published on January 11, 2015.
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