TOKYO -- Vending machines are a common sight around the world, selling beverages, cigarettes and other items. In Japan, famously, they offer a host of surprises. Companies are rediscovering the power of the old-fashioned sales tool to lure customers.
Hikarie ShinQs is a shopping center in Tokyo's Shibuya district, a place bustling with young people. Go up the escalator and you are greeted by a 2-meter-tall milk bottle. The peculiar-looking vending machine never fails to grab visitors' attention.
A milk bottle may sound like a thing of the past, but this one is filled with cutting-edge technology. When a visitor presses the huge "M" button on the bottle, a conference call system starts. The face of Hello Kitty above the button suddenly turns into a monitor connected to another bottle located in Osaka, in western Japan. The customers in Tokyo and Osaka -- likely total strangers who happened to be in front of their respective bottle at the same time -- are encouraged to cooperate in pressing their button simultaneously in order to obtain special items from the bottle, such as a Hello Kitty sticker.
"What? We're connected to Osaka?" The 30-year-old business woman in Shibuya looked amused and puzzled. Like her, many are surprised, squeal and leave in confusion, making way for the next.
The Meet Bottle was set up by Sanrio, the character goods company world-famous for the catlike character Hello Kitty. The bottle-shaped machine is a time-limited promotional tool, scheduled to tour the country from late September to early November.
The aim is to lure customers to a nearby Sanrio character goods shop. To stand out in the sea of social media flooding with information, "it is important to let consumers have special experiences in the real world," said Yuko Otsuka of Sanrio's media department.
Otsuka came up with the idea of using vending machines. "Most vending machines have quite basic designs and functions. A one-off on-the-spot collaborative work with a stranger should be the ultimate real experience," she said.
The bottle's button gets pressed about 300 times a day, 20% more than the company expected, and sales at the nearby goods shop have duly gone up.
A slightly spooky vending machine can be found across Shibuya Station on Center Gai (city center) street. People wait in a long queue to test their courage. Surrounded by onlookers, the user presses one of three buttons: koku (full-bodied), nigami (bitter) or kaori (scented). The machine then tells the person to stick his or her hand into the hole -- to get stroked by a brush, feel a puff of air or experience another surprise.
Once the test is over, the vending machine spews out a piece of paper printed with information about "Yonimokimyona Monogatari," a popular horror TV series on the Fuji Television Network. The paper is also printed with a number for a lottery, in which the person could win a can of coffee. The vending machine was set up from late September till Oct. 17 to advertise the program's broadcast schedule.
"A good advertising tool," said an 18-year-old university student who visited the machine with his friends. A Fuji TV official said: "This [campaign] made us feel that more can be done with vending machines. We want to think about what else we can do with vending machines in the future."
Small businesses are also using unique vending machines to attract customers.
A dashi soup stock vending machine has been trending on Twitter lately. The machine, sporting a huge calligraphy logo of "dashidoraku," an udon noodle restaurant chain run by Nitanda Shoyu, first appeared 10 years ago in front of an outlet in a furtive attempt to sell its soup stock in plastic bottles. Thanks to social media, the vending machine has spread across the country in the past year, more than doubling in number to 45. Today, more than half of the company's dashi sales come via vending machines.
"Products by small and midsize companies like ours often go unnoticed [amid the major brands] at retail shops. But if you sell in a unique vending machine like ours, people will notice," a company official said. The company has been getting numerous requests from all over Japan to set up the machine, but supply of the product has not been keeping pace partly because of an increase in the price of flying fish, its main ingredient, since around last year, the official explained, with a wry smile.
In Uchikocho, Ehime Prefecture, on the island of Shikoku in western Japan, a vending machine sells origami. As the look suggests, this age-old vending machine used to sell cigarettes. The owner of Okano Shoten, the small store that runs the machine, stopped selling cigarettes in the vending machine when the government enacted in 2008 a law requiring consumers to use a special ID to buy cigarettes from vending machines. In 2010, the 61-year-old owner started selling various kinds of paper folded into origami, such as a crane by herself in the machine.
"I'm not expecting to make money on it, of course," she said. The origami items are priced at a few dozen yen (a few dozen cents) so that children who come to the shop to buy dagashi, old-fashioned Japanese candies and snacks, can buy them with small change, she explained. The origami vending machine used to make about 1,000 yen a year, but since around the end of last year the machine began trending mainly on social media, boosting sales to as much as 10,000 yen a month.
"It all started as a playful idea so I'm surprised to see how popular it's become," she said. It is not just children and women who are buying her origami items. "Sometimes grown men secretly come on motorcycles to buy the origami," she said.
Vending machines -- full of surprises and heartwarming feeling -- still have a lot to offer.