Until recently, vending machines provided us with basic products. They were all about fizzy drinks and chocolate bars. Even when they were introduced into hotel lobbies to dispense toiletries that guests had forgotten to pack, the emphasis was still on the "basics". But now a new breed of luxury vending machine is showing up in hotels, airports and malls around the world, offering a very different level of choice and convenience.
Although the luxury vending machine trend may not have started in the UAE, the gold bar dispensing machine installed in the Emirates Palace hotel last year was the first of its kind in the world and set a certain tone for this trend. I will let you decide if it is a tasteful tone or not.
This year, not one but two gold bar vending machines were installed in the Burj Khalifa, and there are plans for more such machines in malls in Dubai. Suddenly, purchasing items from a vending machine requires so much more than a few coins.
Meanwhile, over at the Mondrian South Beach Hotel in Miami, guests can select from more than 60 items in a huge, glossy white vending machine in the lobby. Items range from $10 (Dh37) to $1.2 million (Dh4.4m), so if you fancy buying a Jean Paul Gaultier dress, Sony PSP-2000 or Bentley Azure convertible without the advice of a sales assistant, this is for you.
And perhaps this is where the attraction of "automated retail" truly lies: many shoppers prefer making purchases without interacting with sales assistants. The solitary calm and convenience of shopping online is attractive to most of us, and vending machines essentially offer the best elements of online shopping but in the real world. Plus you get your purchase immediately - instant gratification.
Although many luxury vending machines seem more about offering customers a novelty rather than meeting a genuine need, there are exceptions. U*tique Shop, for example, pushes all the right trend buttons, even down to the very "now" colour of the interactive LED lighting.
The shop offers 56 premium products that are carefully curated according to each machine's location, and therefore answers the genuine needs of people on the go. Machines are stylishly stocked with must-have items of the moment including Smashbox and Stila cosmetics, Bliss Spa, Dogeared jewellery and Lady Gaga Heartbeats headphones. Touch screens allow buyers to learn about the products before buying, providing short video demos, ingredient lists and information on which brands give back to charity. Machines can even dispense a product sample.
The founder, Mara Segal, brilliantly recognised that people are increasingly time-strapped, and shopping could be made simpler and more convenient. As she rightly says: "Time is the new luxury of today, and by focusing on only the must-have premium items, U*tique Shop is saving consumers valued time and making the shopping experience easy and fun."
Currently only present in locations across the US, U*tique Shop has plans for international placement. Here's hoping it arrives in the UAE soon.