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On the unglamorous (but surprisingly huge) vending machine economy

First published in Courier magazine, January 2020. Image by Sofya Bobyk

It was watching a YouTube video in September that first hooked Donald Luxama, 20, on the idea of a vending machine business. ‘There was a guy talking about this way to make money while you sleep, and it just got me,’ says Donald, who started selling home-made hand sanitisers at the start of lockdown and has since expanded his DSK Products range to include fragrances, printed hoodies, durags and more. 

Soon, he was scouring Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace for vending machines and hunting for the right location around his home borough of Totowa in New Jersey, half an hour west of The Bronx. But everywhere he saw potential customers, he also saw machines, quickly realising that they are more ubiquitous than he’d thought. One day he found a listing on Craigslist offering two machines in a local office block for $3,000. They’d been neglected by the owner, especially during Covid lockdowns, but Donald saw the potential of their location by the entrance, leading to a dance studio and more than 10 offices upstairs. 

Having done more research on YouTube, Donald went to Costco and BJ’s Wholesale Club to stock up on Sun Chips, Lays, Starburst, Diet Cokes and Monster energy drinks. Aiming to have a markup of at least 50% on each product, at BJ’s he paid $11.79 for 36 bottles of soda, to sell for $1 each. He thinks he’ll be able to make around $200 a week from his two cash-only machines, judging from the footfall currently flowing into the office building. And whenever the world returns to some kind of normality, potentially a lot more. 

On November 21st, he posted a selfie on the Vending Nation Facebook group beside his two new fully-stocked machines. The group – which has grown from 6,000 members in January 2020 to more than 18,000 today, many of them with BAME backgrounds – weighed in with messages of congratulations and handy tips (‘Get a card reader’; ‘Just stay hustlin man’).  

By the numbers 

There are tens of thousands of similar stories to Donald’s across the US. It is often wrongly assumed that the nation’s roughly five million vending machines, bringing in $7.4bn in annual revenue, according to the industry market research firm IbisWorld, are mostly corporate affairs. In fact, more than 67% of the market is made up of small independent operators, who mostly sell snacks and sweets on slim margins. For many operators, like Donald, it is a side hustle rather than a primary way to make a living. And, while Covid has limited customers’ access to machines, it has also meant a booming interest in ways to make an extra passive income. 

These small operators aren’t the only slice of a global industry that was worth $134bn in 2019 – and is predicted to grow to $146bn by 2027, according to a July 2020 report published by Research and Markets. Many of the biggest businesses in the space are machine manufacturers, from divisions of Mars and Coca-Cola to industrial companies like Crane, Diebold and Wurth, which also manufacture everything from ATMs to airplane components and automotive hardware. But only a few companies – like Canteen in the US, or The Vending People in the UK – both supply and operate machines, and even then many use local partners.   

For the most part, vending machines are operated by small regional businesses – which isn’t to say that they can’t grow. In 1989, San Diego high school teacher Barry Strickland bought five machines as a way to make some extra money and avoid teaching summer school. By the time he and his wife Lory sold their ‘routes’, the term for a cluster of machine locations, they had more than 250 vending machines in the San Diego area and gross sales of more than $500,000 per year. 

By the time Barry and Lory Strickland sold their ‘routes’, they had more than 250 vending machines in the San Diego area and gross sales of more than $500,000 per year. 

Now they renovate old vending machines and teach would-be entrepreneurs through their Vending Mentors business, which has seen double the number of students in 2020. ‘It’s not an obvious time to start a sales business,’ says Lory. ‘But so many people are looking for little ways to make extra income, and vending machines are recession-proof.’ 

Their lessons are hard-won and practical – starting with how to buy the right machines at the right price. Barry paid over the odds for his first five wall-hung units, and advises new owners to buy refurbished machines from trusted suppliers like him, who can fix them if things go wrong. These are often half the price of new machines, which can cost up to $7,000 for a decent one. Anything costing less than $1,000 and you’re likely to be ‘inheriting someone else’s headache,’ he says. Towards the higher end of the scale, vending machines with 50-inch touch screens and conveyor belts cost between $10,000 to $15,000 (or $200 to $300 a month to lease).

When it comes to the actual business, Barry says that a typical ‘bread and butter’ vending machine might make gross sales of $4,000 and $6,000 a year, with roughly 40% of that profit. ‘But some can do much better,’ he says. ‘And if you build up routes that you can service efficiently, you can grow a successful business.’

Barry and Lory say a lot of people get their first locations wrong, often opting for white-collar offices (too likely to eat elsewhere) or auto repair spots (not enough footfall). Instead, they recommend blue-collar businesses of around 100 people, where workers do physical labour and need quick pick-me-ups. They have also had success in places where people have time to kill – like nursing homes and schools, including the Horizon Christian Academy, a now-closed private boy’s school where just three machines had revenues of $60,000 a year. With hotels and motels, they found that the more down-at-heel locations do better, because people are more likely to skip meals to save.  

The classic approach to stock is to buy in bulk at wholesale stores (Sam’s Club is a favourite), and sell for double in machines. But the trick is getting stock right based on the exact needs of the clientele. For example, Barry says that under-30s tend to buy more energy drinks, whereas older customers like classic sodas. At the Viejas outlet mall in San Diego, Barry and Lory noticed that the mostly Latino customers tended to prefer spicy chips and snacks to plain flavours. That learning helped their 14 machines in restroom hallways reach revenues of $60,000 a year.

This universal rule of matching product to customer is especially acute with vending machines. At San Francisco-Oakland airport, for example, the Uniqlo vending machine makes around $10,000 a month from just its down vests, which sell for $50 and instantly allow buyers to fit in with Silicon Valley’s startup culture. 

AI vending machines 

Traditionally, vending machines have been simple analog devices: insert coins here, get a product. But that image is about to change as unattended retail is evolving and is now at a technology and sales tipping point, as machines become smart, networked devices for the ongoing quest for more convenience and a better consumer experience.

Indeed, although the key sales principles of vending machine success haven’t changed since 1989, the technology has. With 70% of machines now using some sort of digital technology, it’s become possible to follow inventory and track buying data in real time, whereas in the early days Barry had to fill a van with a huge range of stock, because he didn’t know what would need refilling. New apps like VendSoft are designed to track inventory and optimise routes, while more machines have in-built AI. 

The vending machine economy is growing in other ways, too, with more people realising that the machines can sell much more than fizzy drinks and snacks – from hairy crabs in Hangzhou, China, to books in Singapore. This isn’t news in Japan, where it’s possible to use a machine to buy everything from sake to rice, watches, cosplay costumes and salarymen-ready ties. The fact that there’s a vending machine for every 23 people in Japan is partly cultural – many people like to buy without the awkwardness of a human interaction. But, more crucially, their ubiquity is spurred by the fact that high real estate prices in dense Japanese cities mean stores often struggle to break even, whereas a vending machine has minimal overheads. They also work 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

These simple truths are major drivers for companies like Gold To Go, founded by German Thomas Geissler, which started in Abu Dhabi and now has ATMS selling gold bars and coins across Europe, the US and Peru; or British company Rockflower, which makes AI-driven machines that sell bouquets of flowers at train stations, including Zurich and London’s Clapham Junction. 

It also explains why bricks and mortar brands are using vending machines to maximise efficiencies and save on costs. Luckin Coffee, which has overtaken Starbucks as China’s biggest coffee chain just three years after opening its first store, launched new barista-quality Luckin Coffee Express vending machines in January 2020. Sprinkles sells its hugely popular baked goods in ‘cupcake ATMs’ in 26 locations across the US. 

A new kind of influencer

Vending machines can also help to build brands in the same way that stores do. In Philadelphia, 24-year-old crochet influencer Emani Outterbridge, aka Emani Milan, wanted a faster way to sell her patterned skeins of yarn, but also realised that a vending machine could be a good way to interact with her customers, which have included Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion. In June, she crowdfunded $10,000 to order three bright pink vending machines, the first of which she placed in her friend’s barbershop, Elements of Grooming in North Central – selling more than 100 skeins in the first week. 

But it’s more than just a pure sales product. Advertising herself as ‘The girl with the bright pink box’, she runs free crochet consultations every Friday with anyone who buys yarn. The buzz around her and her machines hasn’t just meant an uptick in business for her, but for the barbershop too. ‘All of my business has grown,’ says Emani, who is looking for new locations for her machines. One day, she says, she hopes to have machines on all sides of the city. ‘It’s given me a cool story, as well as a new way to sell my product.’ 

It’s given me a cool story, as well as a new way to sell my product.

Emani Milan

In Fort Worth, Texas, 19-year-old Jamie Ibanez has gone the other way. He has used a fledgling vending machine business to parlay into a new career as a YouTube influencer. While he already has 25 machines around Fort Worth, Texas, operated under his Vending Bites company, he is making more money (around $10,000 a month) from his YouTube channel, where 377,000 subscribers watch him fill his garage with Sam’s Club stock, or inspect the crisp cash piles in his machines. One video of him counting $453.50 from three machines over a two-week period has more than 2 million views.

‘Retail-first’ machines

Other companies are using vending machines in more sophisticated ways. London-based Social Vend builds and installs beautifully designed smart vending machines, which can be used to gather customer data as well as sell products. CEO Andrew Theodore founded the business in 2011 after working in experiential marketing, and wondering why he could only find machines that used the latest digital technology (Windows 97 was still standard). He was soon making bespoke machines for brands like Adidas, Barclaycard and Mulberry, which would be used at everything from brand launches to music festivals, offering prizes or samples in return for data and social media shares. 

But, over time, he says Social Vend has pivoted towards retail-first machines, with the data as an added bonus. ‘We’ve found that people are increasingly comfortable spending money in a fully automated system,’ says Andrew, whose five-strong team can build and install new machines in as little as two weeks. Recent projects include a machine for the skincare brand Haeckels, which became the centrepiece of a mirrored, people-free store in the English seaside town of Margate during lockdown; and a machine in the & Other Stories concession at Paris’s Galerie Lafayette department store, selling hand creams, perfumes and soaps – the first of what will be a major rollout in 2021. 

Vending machines can also solve real-world retail problems. Social Vend has built an AI-powered vending machine called Buddy, designed for US cannabis stores, where shoppers have complained about queues (shopkeepers often spend a long time explaining products to customers). Customers get an ID card for the machines, which tracks their purchases and can better recommend new products and promotions.

For Andrew, this is the future. ‘You’re helping customers avoid queues, but you’re also turning an offline experience into an online one, which means valuable customer data for brands,’ he says. ‘I can see a future where most of the big brands have a vending machine attached to the shop. You’ll be able to walk past a branch of H&M at midnight, and there will be a range of products to buy, which will change according to the machine’s own data.’ 

I can see a future where most of the big brands have a vending machine attached to the shop. You’ll be able to walk past a branch of H&M at midnight, and there will be a range of products to buy, which will change according to the machine’s own data.

Andrew Theodore, Social Vend CEO

This race to digitised efficiency applies on the micro-level, too. Donald Luxama wants to add card readers to his cash-only machines in Totowa. Once he has recouped his $3,000 investment, he will expand to different locations and look at new things he can sell, from his hand sanitisers to ice cream. ‘The potential is limitless,’ he says.

Ojai’s new hippie paradise

A new crop of businesses have given the hippie-ish Californian town of Ojai a new lease of life—and made it better to visit than ever

First published in Courier magazine, May 2018. Photography by Nancy Neil and Myles Pritchard.

Looking out across the smoky firepit in the palm-filled courtyard of Caravan Outpost, an Airstream trailer park on the edge of Ojai, co-founder Brad Steward can’t quite believe his luck. “It feels like the universe delivered us to this magical place,” he says.

The magical place in question is this collection of 11 uniquely designed Airstream trailers with hammocks and sit-up bikes, dotted around a tin-shed lobby that doubles as an impeccably curated general store, with own-brand ponchos, throws and corduroy trucker caps.

But it’s also Ojai itself, a pretty little valley town of barely 8,000 residents, 90 minutes north of Los Angeles and a hop inland from the chi-chi coastal town of Santa Barbara—which has seen an influx of creativity over the past five years.

“We came here for the same things that drew the Chumash Indians,” says Steward, a one-time pro snowboarder and industry pioneer who launched the Bonfire snowboard brand in 1989. “The valley is like the American Mediterranean—there’s nowhere else in America where you can get so much amazing produce, from wine to olives and citrus fruit, all grown within five minutes.”

We came here for the same things that drew the Chumash Indians.

While the Chumash were the first inhabitants of Ojai, naming it after the moon that could be seen all night along the valley, they’ve been followed here by a succession of seekers—from Jiddu Krishnamurti, the Indian mystic credited with bringing yoga to America, who moved here in 1922, to John Lennon and Yoko Ono, who spent a blissed-out summer in Ojai in 1972.

Famous for the pink glow that appears on the Topatopa Mountains in the evening, Ojai stood in for Shangri-La in Frank Capra’s Lost Horizon in 1937. Those of a more mystical persuasion believe the valley is a spiritual vortex, blessed with benevolent spirits—a notion not dispelled when the town largely survived the wildfires that raged around it last December.

Steward opened Caravan Outpost in the summer of 2016, with his partner Shawn, and Chet and Mellanie Hilgers. The Stewards had been living in Portland, Oregon, but wanted to move to Ojai when, by chance, they overhead the Hilgers—a local couple—talking about how they’d secured the rights to an old RV park on the edge of town. “It was our blessed Ojai moment,” says Steward. “Somehow, we all had this shared vision of a luxurious outpost for nomads.”

Steward and his co-founders aren’t alone in opening new businesses here. Walking along the main street, with its quaint shopping arcades and Mediterranean-style villas, you’ll pass Revel, an airy kombucha bar, and farm-to-table restaurant Harvest, both of which opened last summer. Drive out of town towards the Topa Mountain Winery and you’ll see the Rancho Inn, a 1950s motel given a hipster-chic makeover in 2012: think cacti, cruiser bikes and a cosy bar playing vinyl records by the pool.

“It wasn’t like a memo went round,” says Bianca Roe, the former model and actor who opened boho-chic boutique In The Field with her husband, the actor-turned-designer Channon Roe, in 2014. “But, by chance, a whole new set of intelligent, mindful people came around the same time we did. It was like the vortex was calling.”

By chance, a whole new set of intelligent, mindful people came around the same time we did. It was like the vortex was calling.

In many ways, the Roes—who left Los Angeles in 2011 to live in their “dreamscape”—are an archetypal couple in a town whose new residents include the actor Channing Tatum and the organic food campaigner and heiress Anna Getty. As an actor, Californian Channon appeared in everything from The X-Files to Boogie Nights, before re-inventing himself as a furniture restorer and interior designer. Melbourne-born Bianca once strutted catwalks for the likes of Armani and Burberry, and is best known for roles in sci-fi series Farscape and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.

They created In The Field in 2014, selling an eclectic but lush range of goods: think designer capes, vintage jumpsuits, African jewellery, old wooden surfboards and kids’ teepees. “We’re both storytellers,” says Bianca. “And the shop is the story of our life and travels.”

Of course, Ojai’s residents aren’t all life envy-inducing arrivistes. Old favourite haunts include Farmer and the Cook, an organic vegetable market and restaurant attached to a local farm, which opened in 2001; and the wonderfully evocative Bart’s Books, America’s largest outdoor book store, which opened in 1964 as a series of sidewalk book cases, and has since grown to include more than 150,000 books, from 35-cent novels to a US$6,000 first edition of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey.

And some of the biggest attractions in town are of the more eternal variety: like Meditation Mount, a meditation centre and Zen garden on a hill overlooking the town, or the natural hot springs in a lush valley towards the coast, which are still being made fit for purpose again after the wildfires.

But strict local laws have helped the new businesses fit into a town that feels elegantly lived-in. In late 2013, Santa Monice emigres Michael and Rachel Graves created Summer Camp, a homeware/outdoor goods store and framers in an old gas station on the Ventura side of town. “You can’t build new buildings in Ojai, and there are super-strict regulations designed to keep the character of every existing building,” says Michael. “It means you have to be lucky, like we were in finding an abandoned pump station. But it also helps maintain the beauty of the place. There’s nowhere else like this.”

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The new Ojai institutions
Summer Camp

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Summer Camp, a homeware/outdoor goods store and framer in an old gas station on the edge of town, has an aesthetic that somehow evokes Wes Anderson and dreamy road trips. Owners Michael and Rachel Graves opened the shop in 2013, having escaped Santa Monica “for a quieter, more connected life”. Aside from the framing, the goods run the gamut from cacti, rustic local ceramics and Ojai Vibes candles to floral vintage dresses and retro wooden waterskis. “The focus is on local, handmade stuff,” says Michael. “We love the outdoors, and that idea of the summer camp informs it all.”
shopsummercamp.com

 

Harvest

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A collaboration between craft beer entrepreneur Spoon Singh and interior designer Channon Roe (also the man behind the nearby In The Field boutique), Harvest opened last summer in an elegantly spartan space, with blonde wood ceilings and an outdoor patio. The kitchen is helmed by is 22-year-old prodigy Alvaro Uribe, whose experience includes a stint at the legendary Chez Panisse in Berkeley. He serves up Ventura oysters, local shiitake mushroom toast and steak from the local Watkins Cattle Company. “It’s all about showcasing the best of Ojai,” says Uribe. “It’s really fun to be using produce made by friends of mine.”
ojaiharvest.com

 

Ojai Rancho Inn

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Until 2012, the Ojai Rancho Inn was just another tired roadside inn—but then Chris Sewell and Kenny Osehan got hold of it. Sewell and Osehan are the couple behind the Shelter Social Club, which specialises in giving hip makeovers to Californian motels like the Alamo Motel in Los Alamos and the Hamlet Inn in the Danish-themed town of Solvang. Today’s Ojai Rancho Inn is an Instagram-tastic amalgam of wood-walled kitsch and modern hipsterdom, with cool ceramic light fixtures and Indian-accented rugs, throws and pouffes. There are cruiser bikes to hire, and regular events round the pool by the cosy Chief’s Peak bar, which has become a favourite haunt for locals.
ojairanchoinn.com