Gone are the days when vending machines were just stocked with canned drinks and candy bars.
Nowadays, there are piping hot meals, sporting and electronic goods, and even jewellery dispensed from the 20,000 or so machines across Singapore.
Brick-and-mortar retailers are increasingly turning to vending machines as a more cost-effective way of maintaining their physical presence, while food manufacturers see them as a way to serve up fresh fare around the clock.
Gift-shop chain Kalms, which closed its last four stores last year in favour of clusters of "automated retail machines", saw its operating costs drop by 70 per cent.
The first vending machine cafe at an MRT station opened in Ang Mo Kio on Tuesday, offering more than 90 food and beverage options, including fried carrot cake and Spanish paella.
Another will follow at Lakeside MRT station next week, and both MRT VendCafes, operated by JR Vending, will be cashless. Commuters can tap their ez-link cards to pay, among other options.
There are plans to launch about 10 VendCafes and other vending concepts with different operators over the next year, according to enterprise development agency Spring Singapore, which helps businesses to adopt such formats.
The shift towards automation is part of the Government's push to make the retail and food service sectors more manpower-lean, while boosting productivity.
Vending machines are also more sophisticated now, with many offering touch screen menus and some able to keep food toasty, such as the "vending oven" launched by Polar Puffs & Cakes this week.
New technology also allows retailers and manufacturers to track inventory, obtain real-time sales reports and push out discounts.
The glow of vending machines could prove to be a light in the dark for brick-and-mortar businesses burdened by high rental and manpower costs, but success depends on their adoption by consumers as a new shopping channel rather than as a last resort.
Tiffany Fumiko Tay