Japan is often painted as a land of convenience. That’s a questionable claim when it comes to things like banking or government bureaucracy. But it’s certainly true when it comes to shopping. And a clear visible symbol of that is the number of vending machines in Japan.
Japan possesses more vending machines per capita than any other nation on Earth. But in recent years, those numbers have started dropping. Which raises the question: Will Japan lose its title as the Vending Machine Capital of the World?
Japan’s vending machines: Ubiquity and variety
Vending machines (Full name: 自動販売機 – jidou hanbaiki; more commonly called just 自販機 – jihanki) became popular in Japan back in the 1960s, with the first machines coming from America in 1962. In 1967, Japan restarted minting and mass production of the 100 yen coin, which made vending machines even easier to use. In the same year, the first ticket selling machines for trains and buses appeared.
In the 1970s, Pokka Sapporo teamed up with Sanden Retail Systems to create a new type of vending machine unique to Japan. The “hot and cold machine” (冷温式自動販売機; reionshiki jidou hanbaiki) used sealed-off compartments to allow some chambers to serve ice cold drinks while others served warm drinks. (Japanese inventors created the most popular warm drink – canned coffee – a decade earlier in 1965.)
The number of vending machines in Japan shot up year over year until the mid-2010s. Commentators have cited a number of reasons for why they became so popular. The most often cited is Japan’s relative lack of theft. (Just don’t leave your umbrella or bicycle lying around.)
But work-life balance – or, rather, the existence of work and lack of balance – is also a factor. With long work hours the norm, vending machines that can serve everything from hot and cold drinks to full-on meals are a time-saving convenience.
Today, you can find vending machines that sell practically anything. Even hot ramen. (No, no joke.)
What people are buying from Japan’s vending machines
That raises the question: What are people actually buying? What vending machines items are the most popular?
There are two ways to answer that question. One is: what items sell the most units? But an equally important question is: which items yield the most profit? The latter answer provides some interesting clues as to the future of jihanki.
According to stats from the Japan Soft Drink Association, the best seller by volume (kiloliter) are tea-based drinks – oolong, mugicha, green tea, etc. Not surprising in a tea-crazed country.
However, in terms of profit, the clear winner is canned coffee. The drink brings in around USD $5.5B in sales yearly.
All told, vending machine sales rake in around USD $34B profit a year for Japanese businesses. Not a bad haul.
Why the number of vending machines in Japan keeps decreasing
But sadly, all is not well in the Land of the Magically Dispensed.
In the past 10 years, the number of vending machines in Japan has declined gradually year over year. After staying around 5 million units for a while, the number of units deployed in Japan dropped below that watermark in 2016.
As you’d expect, the pandemic did nothing to lift the fortunes of vending machine makers and owners. As of 2020, Japan had shed one million units and was down to a mere 4 million and change.
What happened? According to journalist Kubota Masaki, it’s a mix of things.
One is that it’s a bit of a “video killed the radio star” situation. In 2010, says Kubota, convenience stores started pushing coffee sales at the register. Remember how I noted that canned coffee was a huge moneymaker for vending machine operators? The advent of conbini coffee dealt a blow to both volume and profits.
But population decline, says Kubota, undeniably plays a role as well. That’s been offset a little by the pandemic, as vending machine companies expanded their offerings to better support contactless purchases.
For instance, vending machine company KOMPEITO unveiled their SALAD STAND machine. Other machines sell frozen ramen and other heat-and-serve meals for home consumption.
A decline in technology, not just the number of vending machines in Japan
But Kubota says that the decline in the number of vending machines in Japan is more than about numbers.
Kubota notes that a lot of the “innovations” Japan is seeing now aren’t innovative at all. The ramen dispensing machine, for example, was created in the US in 2015.
So now you get why I say the decline in vending machines isn’t just about numbers. “Japan’s vending machines are cutting-edge – you can by hot canned coffee and cold juice anywhere!”. But while patting ourselves on the back, we see that we’re being left behind by new advances.
Kubota blames the lack of innovation on the lack of diversity within the industry. The vast majority of vending machines in Japan (56%) vend drinks. Compared to Japan, the United States doesn’t have that many more drink-vending machines (3 million to Japan’s 2.5 million). But there are already 1.43 million vending machines that dispense food in the US. In Japan, that number is just around 200,000.
Another limiting factor, says Kubota, is that Japanese convenience stores are just too good. The excellent service and convenience customers receive from conbini has throttled advances in more automated solutions, such as vending machines.
Is it too late to reverse course?
So Japan isn’t exactly “the kingdom of vending machines” (自販機の大国). It’s been relegated to “the kingdom of soft drink vending machines”. Advances in the US, Korea, and other countries are forcing the country to play catch-up.
Fortunately, says Kubota, it isn’t all bad news. The vending machine drink market in Japan is likely tapped out and in decline. But the low market presence for food vending represents a business opportunity.
Whether any businesses will tackle that opportunity, however, remains to be seen.
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 日本の自動販売機ガイド——使い方とあまり知られていないお話. MATCHA
 いつ変わる？自動販売機の「あったか～い」と「つめた～い」基準は…. Hot Pepper
 サラダ、ラーメン、人気店の味も! 「グルメ自販機」続々登場. MyNavi News
 10年で116万台減少！ 「世界一の自販機大国ニッポン」はなぜ衰退したのか. ITMedia Business Online
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