I Hitched a Ride with a Vending Machine Repairman

In news that can only be categorized as “extremely important,” the San Francisco airport recently came under twitter fire for (wait for it) a vending machine that sells down vests. Although it’s been in the airport for about a year, social media just caught wind of it, and SFO is being mocked for selling clothing from a vending machine. A spokesman for the airport says that the machine is doing more than $10,000 in sales per month, which is not too shabby if you ask me. Especially when you consider that a vending machine only takes up about 10 square feet of floor space and must have very low overhead.

I can’t say that I’m surprised however, as the company behind the machine is Japanese clothier Uniqlo, and if you’ve ever traveled in Japan, you’ll know that vending machines are all over the country, selling just about anything imaginable. They’re on well trafficked streets in big cities, and they’re in quiet residential neighborhoods too. We’ve seen everything from cold beer and hot coffee, to candy and toiletries, to warm corn chowder, canned carrots and tomato sauce, and even underwear. The advertising pictures on the machines are often just as entertaining as the items for sale. Take, for example, Tommy Lee Jones crying with a can of Boss coffee. Why? Who knows.

We also found ramen shops with vending machines right inside their front door, where you select and purchase your meal, and then hand a ticket that comes out of the machine to the cook. This way the cooks don’t deal with any money, just food!

Our first time in Japan we ate at such a noodle shop in Tokyo. It was quite a treat to try and figure out how the system works, then to play “what’s behind door number 3” as we guessed at which ramen dishes we might be ordering based on the Japanese characters next to each button. We were never sure of exactly which ramen we ordered, I can only report that they were both delicious.

One thing we did figure out was the number of “fire” symbols directly related to how spicy the dish was. That, by the way, is a universal symbol, that due to jet lag, sensory overload and the pressure of MAKING A DECISION in a very foreign and somewhat pressure-packed situation, we missed completely. We still refer to that meal as the time we each ordered a bowl of fire. Delicious yes, but also hellishly hot.

By and large, I like personal service when I shop. I hope so, because I’m in the retail business. But I also understand the idea of quickly being able to purchase items from a vending machine. I may never buy underwear (at least that’s the story I’m telling), but a soda or bottle of water, maybe. Especially when I’m in Japan, and if I can find Tommy Lee Jones shedding a few tears, even better.


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