sales arm n A Japanese vending machine that can even provide hot food is opening up the place of work as a retail channel says Rob Coles J apanese factory workers toiling through the night can buy snacks and meals courtesy of an assistant that never gets tired or needs time off. The 24-hour robo-shop is being pioneered by two well-known Japanese companies ­ convenience retailer am/pm and vending machine manufacturer Sanyo Electric. At first sight it resembles two earlier systems ­ Shop24 in Paris and, before that, Robo Shop Super24 in Tokyo. Both relied on relatively primitive robotic handling, and restricted stock control and sales recording ­ limitations that have now been overcome. Today more than 200 chilled and ambient products, plus up to 20 microwave-heated, pre-packaged meals, are available. Last year, the am/pm chain opened its Delice no man ­ no lady' store in Tokyo's Kojimachi business area, in which simple vending systems were used. The trials weren't particularly successful and ended earlier this year. Spokeperson for am/pm Michiko Kawamura explains that there were too many conventional am/pm stores nearby, as well as competitors' stores. With no staff, floorspace and high street rent were slightly less than for a normal store. However, am/pm quickly found two problems. "The target audience was limited, appealing mainly to food to go customers, mostly the under-30s. 24-hour jamming-free machine operation was also a problem with fragile items needing more accurate machine control than robust drinks cans," Kawamura explains. The company decided the machines needed to be more sophisticated and in more favourable locations. Media interest led to an approach from Sanyo Electric Autovending Machines and Delice's rebirth as an open-all-hours in-factory operation. Three trial sites have been chosen where the nearest high street shop is at least a 15 minute walk away. am/pm is buying Auto Shop Vendor machines from Sanyo and installing new software it has developed to monitor and control sales and order replacement stock. Once the machines are installed, the host companies act as am/pm's franchisees. Tokyo Seimitsu's head office and factory has an am/pm Automatic Super Delice machine complete with a three-temperature zone vending system. This is made up of three parts ­ a machine with divided ambient and chilled sections alongside two further machines for vending chilled beverages and (microwave-heated from frozen) fresh lunchbox meals. This last machine has a 1,500 watt microwave oven inside. Microwave power and heating times are pre-programmed to individual product needs. Inside the machine up to 20 products are stored in spiral columns. Large photo-quality colour pictures show the products available. Once a product is ordered and paid for with cash (credit cards are not accepted and are still uncommon, with most Japanese people carrying a big wad of notes), the numbered product requested is collected by a robot arm. The rapid defrosting and heating programmes provide hot food in minutes. Key features of am/pm's fresh food include a healthy, low fat and, where possible, high protein content. Refrigerated, eat-before dates are also shorter than the company's bigger convenience store competitors to emphasise freshness. At Tokyo Seimitsu the machine is next to the cafeteria, which opens for just an hour and a half a day. Even when it is open, sales of drinks, lunchboxes, sandwiches and bread continue because there's no queuing. Sales of products such as hamburgers are popular as relatively cheap food, while younger employees have a preference for am/pm's fresh foods. Although they may not look appealing, these use only natural colours and are popular with people interested in diet and nutrition. Staff have also expressed a preference for newly advertised products. Monthly sales are around 20,000 items per unit per month. Akira Ishizaki from Tokyo Seimitsu's general affairs department says: "Only the on-the-go under-30s were willing to try short-life fresh foods and drinks from am/pm's Delice high street store. Inside our factory, however, with a far superior Delice robosystem and product presentation, customer age is no longer a barrier." n {{FEATURES }}