January 13, 2014

Amazon installs vending machines in airports, malls, other loci of sorrow and unease


Dare you look into the glassy face of the fuuuutuuuuuuure?

Dare you look into the glassy face of the fuuuutuuuuuuure?

Amazon vending machines are the future of retail in precisely the same way that Dippin Dots are the future of ice cream.

News hit various tech blogs late last week that everyone’s favorite Objectivist toothpaste store and online retail grue Amazon has begun installing Kindle vending machines in various airports and malls.

Geekwire’s Todd Bishop and Taylor Soper ran into one of the machines at the Las Vegas airport on Friday. They ran a post detailing their experience buying from the machine—it was rocky, and they were only its second customer. They surmise that the machine had been installed there specifically as a marketing move, to get the attention of tech journalists flying home form the Consumer Electronics Show where Amazon did not otherwise have a presence. An airport employee told them the vending machine had been installed just the day before. They write:

An Amazon spokesperson tells us via email that the company has made the kiosks available at a variety of locations, including events, malls and airports. …  It’s not clear how many people will feel comfortable purchasing something as expensive as a $379 tablet from a vending machine. But at $69, the standard Kindle e-reader could be an impulse buy for someone preparing for a long flight.

Indeed, electronics vending machines are a fixture throughout most major airports now, selling all sorts of headphones, tablets, and of course a panoply of various chargers. What Amazon is trying here is no more revolutionary than the idea of putting Sunglasses in a Hut.

Vending machines are a great novelty; what bag of stale off brand corn dust doesn’t taste better when it’s served to you by a robot? And insofar as buying anything from or associated with Amazon is inherently shameful, eliminating eye contact during the transaction would seem to be for the best. I think they may well have some success in moving their cheaper devices with these in airports. But that does not, as Wired’s Marcus Wohlsen posits, mean that you can expect Amazon vending machines on your block any time soon.

Wohlsen was probably wrung out from a stint at CES, so we can forgive him his written-to-a-deadline thoughtlessness, but his contention that these kindle vending machines point toward greater vending machine ambitions is off the mark. He writes:

Picture a near-future where high-tech Amazon vending machines are on every corner selling the kinds of things that typically take shoppers to Walgreen’s or CVS. The machines would take up way less real estate than stores, which would keep overhead low. They could go just about anywhere — say, the basements of big-city apartment towers or the courtyards of suburban residential complexes. And they could be refilled by drivers traveling their daily Amazon Fresh delivery routes (or, you know, by drones).

Think about it. We already have toothpaste. We already have vending machines. Why aren’t there already toothpaste vending machines on the corner? There are a variety of reasons—toothpaste and hemmorhoid cream last longer and are needed less frequently than a bag of Andy Capp’s Hot Fries, for instance; vending machines need high traffic concentrations of consumers with relatively few other choices to make them attractive; Amazon’s own expansion into shipping these products is killing this very market—and none of these reasons is that nobody else has the ambition or wherewithal to pull it off. Vernor’s and RC Cola had a few vending machines in my home town, and yet somehow that has not led to their retail dominance.

Vending machines are old, fun tech, and like another old, fun tech—books—Amazon will only ever use them as a novelty on their road to dominance. Amazon vending machines won’t be putting your local pharmacy out of business any time soon. The rest of Amazon has that covered.



Dustin Kurtz is the marketing manager of Melville House, and a former bookseller.