Wireless Drives Vending Machines To the High End

If a vending machine can recognize and validate a credit card, it can vend any item, no matter the price.

Vending machines are not just about soda and candy and chips anymore.

Wireless technologies that enable credit card purchases are spurring companies to market a wider variety of items from vending machines—everything from suntan lotion to golf balls to consumer electronics.

Say, for example, your cell phone dies and you desperately need to replace it. These days you can simply buy a new one from a vending machine. How about a new pair of shoes? For awhile, Reebok was selling sneakers this way.

"Cashless is really opening up the marketplace for what one would call very high-ticket items," says Steve Herbert, president and chief operating officer for USA Technologies. His company’s e-Port hardware, which can be installed in vending machines, handles credit card processing, tracks inventory and monitors the "health and welfare" of the machines, alerting technicians in case of trouble.

The device, used by customers including Motorola and Reebok, includes a general packet radio­ service cellular connection. While the wireless credit card payment capability solves the problem of requiring end users to stuff $100 or more in cash into a machine, it also solves a related problem: At $1.50 or $2 for a soda, the currency systems in a soda machine can fill up before the machine is empty, Herbert says, cutting into potential sales and profits. Operators want to allow users to buy with credit cards in order to be able to sell every last item in the machine.

The e-Port and related software also fuel a variety of wireless applications beyond vending. Sony uses software from USA Technologies in digital photo printing kiosks to enable credit card authorization and head off problems. For example, if paper runs out, the software tells a technician that it's time for a refill.

Next up: a vending machine that sells gold wedding rings? It would be a hit in Las Vegas for sure.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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