Coin-op Nation

Toilet paper from a vending machine? Here's one hot trend that won't catch on in the United States.

How huge are vending machines in Japan? Forget soda and breath mints: Japanese machines dispense eggs, porn, beer, jewelry, toilet paper (hey, when you need some, you need some), and rhinoceros beetles (uh, ditto, I guess). Need to charge your cell phone or pick up some live bait? Step right up.

Rich Geerdes has been to Japan. The CEO of the National Automatic Merchandising Association (NAMA) attributes the country's success with machine vending to its chronic shortage of space. "Folks there are using vending as an adjunct to their day-to-day living cycle," he says. "Instead of stocking snack or beverage items in their kitchens, they use vending."

The numbers speak for themselves: According to NAMA, Japan claims one machine for every 20 people, versus one per 50 in the United States. Machines account for some $56 billion of revenue in Japan, nearly twice the U.S. total. So per capita, the Japanese buy more than four times what we do via machines.

This isn't to say that American retailers haven't tried taking vending mainstream. Staples, Target, Kodak, and McDonald's have all dipped their toes in the market over the past few years, piloting everything from vending-machine bread to cameras and Post-its. But apart from the cultural divide, there's a logistical hitch: It's just not worth the relatively low margins to service a far-flung network of machines (though McDonald's has had moderate success with DVDs). So despite a flurry of press, all four companies have quietly withdrawn from the market. Which means that, for now, you'll have to buy your rhinoceros beetles on eBay.

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