Japan has a population of 126.5 million, and there’s approximately one vending machine for every 23 inhabitants, according to the Japan Vending Machine Manufacturers Association. These machines’ annual sales total around $60 million. They are usually found on street corners, subway exits, train platforms and even dead-end alleys. However, the pandemic made vending machines less essential despite being integral to “salarymen” and a fast-paced city life—sales of drinks dropped by over 35 percent earlier this year, according to Inryo Soken data.

How did Japan find a way to keep this part of their culture alive?

Vending machines are known for its variety of soup and drink offerings, including those with flavors not found in supermarkets and convenience stores. With the global health crisis devastating the vending machine business, new products are now making their way into these machines.

For one, automats’ vending machine contents went from the usual hamburger and noodle soup to face masks and antibacterial wipes. Meanwhile, Japanese drinks company Dydo Group Holdings Inc., which gets 80 percent of its revenue from vending machine sales, plans to invest $56.7 million in 2021 to keep these apparatuses afloat in the post-COVID era. 

Some ideas include turning these machines into mini data centers and connecting them to the internet. They are even poised to become weather and earthquake monitoring stations. Dydo is also looking to develop a vending machine that uses foot pedals instead of buttons. 

Last August, the drop in sales was at -13 percent. There’s fewer people out in the streets and the absence of tourists hunting down the most unusual offerings of vending machines is greatly impacting revenue generation. Will this integral part of the Japanese urban landscape survive the onslaught of the pandemic?

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