These days, it’s rare for newfangled retail gimmicks to stand out. But like Daryl Hannah’s mermaid character in Splash‘s electronics-store scene, I found myself transfixed by the newest breakthrough on the shopping frontier: iPod vending machines.
Built to look like the contraptions that dispense your M&Ms — only three times the size and outfitted with a credit-card swipe slot and a flat-panel touch screen — the first one I encountered was inside Macy’s Center City store. I was too scared to test the thing, lest I unintentionally drop $300 or, worse, drop $300 only to see my iPod lodge between a pair of headphones and an MP3 case, the way my Snickers often gets stuck between Doritos and Fritos. Instead, I called ZoomSystems, the San Fran-based distributor of the machines, which, it turns out, just last year signed deals with airports, hotels and retailers to dispense not just $300-plus electronics, but beauty products (Proactiv acne solution) and phones. According to Stephanie Bowler, ZoomSystem’s marketing coordinator, there’s actually no threat of Snickers-style jams, since products are retrieved via a steady robotic arm. (Users’ credit cards aren’t charged until the purchase is safely in hand.) Already, she says, Pennsylvania has seven such machines, from Pittsburgh to KOP. All of which begs the question: When the novelty of this shtick wears off-and it will-what, pray tell, will be next?