On a recent visit to the mall, I noticed a little girl was carefully perusing the contents of the row of gum ball and toy vending machines, with the same intensity I demonstrated when I was shopping for new appliances. She was contorting herself around the machines, checking out all of the contents and trying to predict which items were to come out next.
I understood that this was a major purchase and she was looking for the best value for her hard earned allowance money. That was me 40+ years ago!
After much scrutiny and analysis, she pointed to a machine, put in her coin, turned the crank, opened the plastic bubble and voilà! Pure joy and a huge smile! I could only assume that she got what she was looking for as she was visibly delighted with her prize.
I was reminded of my own childhood and my borderline addiction to those machines. I remember my sock drawer was proudly filled with little gum-ball-machine toys I had collected from trips to the grocery store or the department store.
I don’t think my experience was all that unusual though. With those machines at eye level for a kid, it was so easy to beg parents and relatives for coins, to get something I “positively need, and promise I won’t ask for anything again”… until the next visit.
But what is it about those machines that ignites our curiosity? If common sense prevails, one would think that being able to hold, feel and inspect a product up close to make an informed decision would the more balanced way to go. However the separation of human and product by a plastic window seems to appeal to our sense of adventure.
Or is it because we have become the product of our own life-long Pavlovian experiment since a very young age: put in a coin, get a treat?
But by design, it also has an Inspector Gadget aspect to it that appeals to our senses. How exciting is it to watch the plastic bubbles jostle around in the machine and to see our purchase drop into the bottom compartment. Suspense, drama, anticipation and a little adrenaline rush for the price of one little coin. Isn’t that good value for money?
Just to show you how automatic the vending machine response can be: I even remember one time when I was very young, maybe 4 years old, passing by a cigarette vending machine in a restaurant and impulsively pulling on all of the knobs of the machine… and I got a free pack! My parents who were smokers at the time were elated but a tad embarrassed at the same time. It was just too bad that it was not their brand.
I even remember regularly monitoring the progress of a machine at our neighbourhood grocery store as the item I wanted was near the top and I needed to wait for weeks for that sporting chance at the item I wanted. In terms of life skills and life lessons, those machines can even be educational in the sense that they can teach patience!
In the summer of 1975, we took a family vacation to Old Orchard Beach, where we had the good fortune (or misfortune, depending on how you look at it) of having the ice and vending machine room next to our motel room. My parents needed a crow bar to get me to leave the room to go to the ocean as I just wanted to play with the vending machines. It didn’t really matter whether I needed 14 ginger ales or not, but the convenience of having vending machines next door is a vacation highlight I still recall to this day!
Of course it’s all fun and games until that dreaded time comes along and the honeymoon is over: the time when a vending machine dispenses the wrong item, dispenses the one flavour we don’t like or eats our money and refuses to give it back. All we can do is take a step back and stare at the machine, realizing that we are powerless. We do not always have a human nearby, empowered to negotiate a resolution, when a vending machine transaction goes down the toilet.
And I draw the line at pay toilets… It’s not fun when urgency collides with the unavailability of the right denomination of coin and the change machine (if one is available) is broken.
But just the same, I still find myself drawn to vending machines from time to time, looking at all of the offerings like I just uncovered a cave of hidden treasures.
My fascination for vending machines overflowed recently at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Montréal upon discovering a beautiful lounge of vending machines for sampling fine wines. As tempting as they were, I haven’t tried those machines yet, but I look forward to making that adventure part of a future stay in Montréal.
Now THAT is technology and progress at its best, offering us something we can positively use!
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