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From acne patches to plants, what’s up with M'sian SMEs rolling out unique vending machines?

The concept of vending machines is not a novel one. The idea itself has been around for over a century, with the first modern coin-operated vending machine dating back to the 1880s.

Back then, these “machines” were used for postcards, and in the 1920s, they were used for cigarettes.

In today’s age, the most common commodity of vending machines is snacks and drinks—relatively low-value items that people would reach for on the go.

As of late, though, we’ve been noticing more and more unique vending machines. There are ones selling health supplements, and others offering skincare services and products. From a cactus vending machine to an NFT one, these seem to be less about convenience and more about novelty.

It may be easy to just write these custom vending machines off as a gimmick, and perhaps some are, but when done right, they actually can be much more valuable than a storefront.

No staff, no problem

One of the most obvious reasons businesses may opt for a vending machine is its unmanned nature. No bathroom breaks, no sick days, no holidays. And of course, it eliminates the cost of wages.

But purchasing or renting a vending machine requires some moolah too. Don’t forget, for most of the unique vending machines, some customisations are needed too, which would incur more costs.

And this doesn’t seem to be cheap. Earlier this year, Dododots, a local beauty brand specialising in pimple patches, launched a vending machine to dispense its patches.

Speaking to Vulcan Post previously, the founders did not disclose how much the vending machine cost, but that just moving it from Riuh Raya to Sentul Depot cost over RM2,000.

According to Ringgit Oh Ringgit’s Suraya, though, typical vending machines such as snacks, coffee, and drinks dispensers, go from RM8,000 to over RM20,000 each.

That said, these are just one-time purchases compared to a recurring salary.

The concept of unmanned stores might’ve also been hastened by the pandemic, what with all the social distancing and health concerns out there. Even in a post-pandemic world, some people still prefer self-service machines.

Functional marketing

Some companies may spend thousands just to advertise a business through posters and banners.

While renting out a lot for a vending machine in a mall may cost as much, if not more depending on the location, it not only functions as an ad that brings in awareness, it also can generate revenue through actual sales.

Another layer of functionality is when the machine adds extra value to the commodity it offers.

Just take a look at Cactus Boy Nursery’s vending machine in CITTA Mall. Right off the bat, a succulent vending machine might sound like a stunt.

But this vending machine actually makes a lot of sense. First, the machines ensure a consistent temperature for the plants. Plus, the machine is also equipped with an automated watering system and grow lights.

Given, Cactus Boy Nursery also has a nursery in Citta Mall with staff who could’ve watered and monitored the plants. But the vending machine gave the business some media coverage and likely attracted some people who wanted a unique experience, so it’s a win-win for the business and consumers overall.

And as of July 2023, Cactus Boy Nursery seems to have acquired a third vending machine, so perhaps that’s a testament to the value of their strategy.

Not without its issues

Like any other business, though, the vending machine world is not without its flaws.

For one, Dododots has shared on social media a few incidences when their vending machine “broke”. One was during the Riuh In The City event, when the motion sensor was tripped.

Another issue was when an extra product dropped when a customer only bought one. Thankfully, the customer was nice enough to leave the patches on top of the machine and inform the team.

However, not everyone would be as kind as the customer in the video. Chances are, some (if not most) people would just take the other pack.

Repairs might not come cheap for these specialised machines, either. And there’s always a threat of user error and mishandling of the machine by the customers.

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So, do the pros outweigh the cons? Well, it depends on the product.

Cactus Boy Nursery’s machine clearly has a lot of benefits due to the custom nature of the machine itself.

Meanwhile, Dododots pointed out that their machine is ideal for those suffering from acne who might not want to interact with others while on their way to acquire patches. (However, you’d still have to walk through an often-crowded mall to get your patches from the machine, so maybe that reasoning is debatable.)

Vending machines also allow for rapid expansion to further locations with arguably lesser risks, although transportation fees might be steep, if Dododot’s experience is something to go by.

Down the road, however, these unique kinds of vending machines might stop being so novel and interesting, becoming as commonplace as the canned drinks machines we see everywhere today.

But for now, it seems like a few smart entrepreneurs have managed to leverage the concept to suit their products and needs, providing customers with a physical touchpoint to access their products conveniently.  

Read other articles we’ve written about Malaysian startups here.

Also ReadEarly-stage startups, here’s how you can get a cut of RM36K from Sidec’s 2023 accelerator

Featured Image Credit: Cactus Boy Nursery / Dododots

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