Food and drink vending machines have come a long way since the days they dispensed dusty confectionery and tepid beverages at swimming pools and on railway platforms.

Their modern-day succesors – stocked with myriad products ranging from fresh milk to flowers – are increasingly found in remote and rural locations. Indeed, Defra specifically mentioned vending machines when it recently announced grants up to £300,000 were available from the Farming Investment Fund to help farmers grow their businesses.

“The perception that vending machines exist solely to dispense chocolate and crisps to satisfy cravings for junk food has changed in recent years,” says Nigel Bogle, MD of retail technology provider The EPOS Bureau. “They have become another option for a growing self-service marketplace and, thanks to technological advances, can now service a wider set of applications.”

Those applications include businesses that cannot have staff operating a till full time, with vending machines acting as a high-tech alternative to honesty boxes.

With retail increasingly becoming cashless, and many consumers no longer carrying cash, one advantage vending machines have over honesty boxes is the use of contactless payments.


Source: iStock

Egg and potato vending machines in action on a French roadside

Machines also enable retailers to make sales when their business is closed, offering a useful out-of-hours service to customers in rural locations with few alternative shops.

“It won’t be for every farm shop but, in certain scenarios, vending machines provide a viable means to get quality products to consumers when a more traditional point of sale is impractical or unavailable,” says Bogle.

Take-up of vending machines has been encouraged by tech advances that include temperature control and sending messages to an operator’s mobile device when stock is low.

“Our customers stock an enormous range of goods and the only limitation is size or awkward shapes, but there are even specialist machines for joints of meat, flowers and all sorts,” says Dan Saunders at vending machine supplier The Milk Station Company.

The business found the pandemic brought an increase in footfall at its customers’ sites, with locked down consumers using their permitted outdoor exercise time to visit a machine to purchase milk and produce.

Saunders says demand has continued since restrictions were eased. “Consumers’ purchasing habits have also changed considerably since the start of the pandemic. People want to be buying produce locally, thus reinvesting into and supporting communities.”

Farmer-owned co-operative First Milk is hoping to tap that interest in local produce with the launch of the Golden Hooves vending machines scheme, which enables its farmers to sell milk, cheese and other products direct to consumers. Describing the branded franchise as a ‘business in a box’, First Milk offers support in set-up, sourcing, supply, payment and central marketing.

“Establishing direct-to-consumer sales presents a strategic opportunity for First Milk – to connect its farmer members with their end product, to tell their story of regeneration at scale and to drive additional value for their milk,” says the co-op’s corporate development director, Stuart Donald.

The first Golden Hooves vending machine launched on a Derby farm in May. Now, First Milk company is hoping to grow the scheme to 20 to 25 franchises over a two-year period.

Beyone milk, interest in local produce has also driven the use of egg vending machines in the UK for some time, with consumers able to pick up eggs at the farmgate, knowing exactly where they have come from.

Egg vending machines were the inspiration behind the development of fully automated shop Betty’s Farm in Willington, near Derby.

The farm, which has 24,000 free-range hens, originally planned to use vending machines only to sell eggs. But after considering how many suppliers of quality food were in the local area, the business partners decided to widen the vending range.

Shoppers select items via a touchscreen. After making a card or contactless payment, they walk down the line of machines as individual windows open on a timer to allow goods to be collected.

1. Bettys main

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Betty’s Farm in Willington uses banks of vending machines

While few retailers may opt to go fully automated like Betty’s Farm, businesses that install a vending machine can expect a good return on their investment, claims The Milk Station Company.

Most of its customers buy their machines outright, though it is possible to rent or lease them. Saunders says some customers sell between 80 and 150 litres of milk a day, while 400 or 500 litres is not unusual at a weekend. 

“Combine this with bottle and general produce sales of around £2,000 per month if machines are well stocked,and ROI is good,” he adds.

He seeks to ease concerns about the security of vending machines, pointing out most use cash-free, contactless payment. “In four years, we have had about seven machines broken into from the 300-odd we have supplied.”

Technology has also made vending machines easier for consumers to use, though it is still important that instructions are clear. Saunders suggests having someone on site initially, to assist new customers who may not have used a vending machine before. “Increasingly we are providing more machines with touchscreens and larger displays to help customers understand the machine operation better,” he adds.

And it is vital machines are kept well stocked, points out Bogle at The EPOS Bureau. “Nnothing is less enticing than a vending unit with spaces for stock and zero items. It screams afterthought.”

A machine must also be kept clean and maintained to give shoppers confidence it is worth using, he adds. “The last thing you want is customers turning up to read an out of order sign.”