October 2011/Prepared Foods -- An April 2011 USDA GAIN report entitled “Japan Food Trends-March 2011” notes that vending machines are important in Japan. Such machines garnished 34% of soft drink sales in 2009. Vending machines also allow companies to sell their beverages “at full price.” For example, a carbonated drink sold in a supermarket for less than 80 yen (under a dollar) can be sold for 120 yen from a vending machine. The machines take on certain functions of a supermarket -- but at a lower cost.

Grocery stores, especially smaller ones, have a potential advantage over machines, in that employees can make recommendations to customers. However, vending machines may be taking on that task, as well. In 2010, the JR East Water Business Company installed Japan’s first face-recognition beverage vending machines. Equipped with 47-inch, touch-panel screens and embedded sensors to help determine characteristics of approaching customers (e.g., age, sex), the machines recommend drinks to the customers based on time of day, temperature and the demographic group into which the customer falls.

According to a Reuters report (http://tinyurl.com/3lr65qr), a company spokesperson said, “If the customer is a man, the machine is likely to recommend a canned coffee drink, since men tend to prefer these. If the customer is in their 50s, though, that recommendation is likely to be green tea.” A woman in her 20s will be recommended a tea drink or slightly sweeter product.

The GAIN report also noted Japan has always been a health-conscious consumer market. Will there be a day when such machines also scan for obesity and recommend low-calorie offerings? pf