Stirlingretail

Vending Machines and the Internet

I first encountered John Dawson when I was working in the City Council in Townsville, Northern Queensland.  I was on a four-month exchange as a student and had been asked to do some research on shopping centres.  As a consequence I read some of John’s research as preparation for my report and dissertation.  It is at this point I got interested in retailing (Cambridge did not teach it, or even recognise it in geography at that time)  In turn this led to my joining him in Wales as a PhD student and then to the foundation of the Institute for Retail Studies at Stirling in 1983.

During the time I worked directly with John (c1979-1991), and sometimes in our academic work and engagements subsequently, I got used to phone calls or later emails, which on the surface posed an innocuous question, but in reality made you think hard, dig deep and often reassess what you actually knew.

And so it was that reading my emails on my recent trip to Singapore I noticed one from John – “which has higher global market store, vending machines or the internet?”  As it happened it coincided with another email, this from an ex-student Eric Doherty, asking if I had seen the hot food vending café in Singapore?  This apparently had opened last August.

Now John had recently been in Japan and so vending machines must have been on the agenda.  In Singapore and later in Hong Kong there was little evidence of anything out of the ordinary.  But, I am aware of the increase in their use in a variety of settings and for lots of different products from high end technology to hot pies and sacks of potatoes.

Fisher & Donaldson in St Andrews (Photo STV)

Grewar Farm Vending in Dundee (Photo STV)

I don’t have an answer to John’s question, but from the fact he posed it I suspect he does and that it challenges what he may see as my obsession with internet sales.  In both cases I do wonder about how accurate we can be in our data collection on a national let alone a global basis.  And definitions might matter as well, given the over 50% click and collect being reported in some British retailers.  Are these internet or shop sales or an unruly combination of both?  And does it vary by person or trip?

As ever though with John’s questions it became insidious and I began thinking about modern vending machines.  Done properly they provide instant gratification of a demand (and sometimes a demand you had forgotten you had). But the supply to meet that demand is increasingly technologically enabled. The technology behind (and in front) of vending machines is becoming increasingly sophisticated. Again, there might be combinations that blur the issue.  If I buy rail tickets online but collect them at the station via a ticketing machine, is that the internet or vending or neither/both?  (And yes I know I really can have a ticketless mobile download version now).

I also failed to answer Eric’s question as I ran out of time to see the vending café.  It sounds pretty horrible to me and may be the latest Singapore trend to fly but then crash and burn.  It all seems a little Star Trek, but we do now have the technology to provide hot food vending wherever and whenever we want.  Despite the claims of those behind this, shouldn’t food be more than this?  I suspect in Singapore the drive is both their technological obsession (interest) but also a reaction to the shortage of labour problems the sector is facing in the country.  Against that the Singaporean obsession with food and food quality may mitigate their expansion.

Queuing up to use the VendCafe in Singapore (Photo: The Straits Times)

Vending machines or the internet?  Both have their place and both are probably growing, but at varying paces in different societies.  One does hope however there remains a place for a real shop to provide some real difference and interest and helps to spark imagination and exploration.