Chips or a camera? Cola or cabernet? You can find some unusual surprises in high-tech vending machines these days.
At airports, malls, department stores and grocery stores, you can still slip your dollar bill into a slot and decide between potato chips and pretzels. Or you can pop in your credit or debit card and purchase everything from a $349 digital camera to a $35 makeup kit to a $10 bottle of wine.
While the systems' developers prefer terms like "automated store" or "kiosk," the machines resemble oversized vending machines, though far more elaborate, with touch screen pads and detailed product information.
"We partner with established brands that want to create a store network," and has about 1,000 kiosks around the country, says Meghan Lang, spokeswoman for ZoomSystems in San Francisco. The company provides many of the high-tech machines currently in use, so customers can buy items such as Proactiv skin care products at malls in Oklahoma City, or Rosetta Stone language learning software at Orlando's airport.
Electronics, high-end items
One of the main proponents is Macy's, which has about 400 eSpot shops set up by ZoomSystems at its department stores across the nation. "It serves us very well in the electronics category," says Jim Sluzewski, Macy's senior vice president for corporate communications and external affairs. This way the store can offer consumers their favorite products without having to set up and stock an actual electronics department.
At an eSpot in a Macy's men's department in Tampa, Fla., customers can buy high-end items like Garmin GPS systems and Apple iPods, and less costly items like headphones and flash drives. Want to know more about a product? Hit the touch screen and information about the product's features, as well as its price, will pop up.
It's a similar situation in Pennsylvania, where wine kiosks are being rolled out in a state where wine and liquor are typically sold through state-run stores.
Simple Brands of Conshohocken, Pa., has introduced the kiosks at two grocery stores in the Harrisburg area, with about 100 more planned throughout the state by year's end.
Each kiosk carries 53 types of wine tailored to the preferences of each market. Touch a screen and you'll get details about each bottle of wine, as well as information on what kind of dishes it pairs well with, says Mark D'Andrea, senior director of marketing for Simple Brands.
But completing a transaction is a bit more complicated than popping your change into a standard vending machine.
With a ZoomSystems machine, a customer must swipe her credit or debit card for purchase authorization. Some machines, like those for Macy's and Best Buy, also accept gift cards. Once the transaction is approved, a robotic arm puts the product in the doorway of the machine, and when the customer removes the product, an optical scanner makes note of it and charges the customer's account, Lang says.
Remote ID check
To make a wine purchase at a Simple Brands kiosk, customers first put their choices into an online shopping cart. When it's time to check out, they insert their ID into the kiosk to make sure they're of legal drinking age. A state Liquor Control Board customer service representative verifies the ID and can see the customer through a high-definition camera.
Customers then scan their credit card or debit card, then blows into a breathalyzer to verify they're not intoxicated.
If all is clear, a flashing light showcases the selected bottle of wine, a protective plastic shield moves, and voila! Vino.
The whole process takes about two minutes, D'Andrea says. "It's faster than going into a wine store."
Customer Kevin Adams was impressed by the ease of the purchase. "I felt like it was easy to use. It's like using an ATM machine." Though he admits, "it was a little weird blowing into the breathalyzer in the machine."
If that's not high-tech enough, Next Generation Vending and Food Service, of Canton, Mass., is testing dozens of biometric vending machines in the Northeast. They're designed to let consumers tie their credit cards to their thumbprints and make purchases using fingerprint scanners.
But just because the machines are high tech doesn't mean there can't be hiccups.
Kristin Miller, a publication relations account director in Colorado, used a Sephora machine, run by ZoomSystems, while traveling on a business trip through the Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport.
She studied the products, reading the descriptions of each, before settling on a travel makeup kit. When she swiped her debit card, the kit came halfway out, then got stuck in the machine.
"I kind of felt like I did as a little kid when the candy bar or chips didn't come out," Miller says. She wasn't so upset that the transaction failed, "I was more upset that I didn't get the makeup."
Her receipt said there was no charge, but it posted on her debit card as a pending transaction for several days before the charge was removed.
Despite the glitch, the system did exactly what it was supposed to by not charging Miller's account for her attempted purchase because the makeup kit was never removed from the machine.
Each ZoomSystems machine has a 24-hour customer service number posted on it, which customers can call if there's a problem, and the phone number is also printed on the receipt. If a product is defective or there are other problems, a consumer can easily return the product, though return policies vary from store to store, Lang says.
Both ZoomSystems' and Simple Brands' systems are designed to prevent fraud and phishing. "We want to make it a secure, safe transaction for everyone involved," Lang says.
Despite the problem Miller encountered, she's still game to try the machines again. "I think I would use it for things I'm always forgetting" when traveling, such as ear buds and power cords. "Airports are unique. It's really an island there."
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