“Machine Shop” by Tama Underwood, Promotional Products Business Magazine

When approaching a vending machine, we all expect to find the usual suspects inside – potato chips, candy bars and other light bites.

Imagine, however, if you walked up to a glass-enclosed display and inside found logoed apparel and merchandise instead of the high-calorie treats you expected. Ruffled potato chips replaced by screen printed t-shirts and engraved key chains where the snack cakes should be.

As consumers adjust to nontraditional methods of purchasing goods, it’s expected that more retailers will market goods from automated retail machines – that’s right, they’re not called vending machines anymore.

“Automated retail machines are essentially shopping online, but with instant gratification,” says Jeff Thibodeau, vice president of operations for Innovative Vending Solutions, which manufactures and maintains state-of-the-art retail machines and kiosks. “No waiting on shipping, no shipping charges and so on,” he says. “They are a great tool in this 24/7-world that we now live in.”

Redbox, a company that rents DVDs for $1 via machines located at convenience stores, supermarkets and McDonald’s franchises, is an obvious example of consumer acceptance of mechanical sales transactions. The company began setting out its machines in 2003 and now has 23,000 Redbox rental stations, with plans to double this number by 2012, according to Hoovers.com. As a result, the traditional weekend dinner and a movie now involves a quick trip to a corner vending machine.

In some ways retail vending machines offer a better shopping experience than web-based stores, or even brick-and-mortar shops. One can see items up close even if they can’t touch them or try them on for size. Plus, new-generation machines are studded with features such as video demonstrations on product usage and even face recognition software.

Automated retail machines stock everything from small electronics such as MP3 players and cell phones to make-up and luxury skin care. Imprinted merchandise is particularly suited to these machines because of the familiarity and trust bred from brand recognition. Thibodeau’s Innovative Vending Solutions supplies machines to sports teams and other brands with strong cult followings such as Harley-Davidson.

“The company that purchases the machines for placement can brand the machine with their own logos and fill the machine with their own product,” Thibodeau explains. “It is literally an interactive billboard for their brand, but also a mini store front. It covers every angle and really gives you the most bang for your buck in a small area.”

Gone are the days of lonely banks of boxy vending machines lining out-of-the-way corridors. Modern retail machines are built to coordinate with a brand’s aesthetic and to complement the style of their surroundings. They ornament luxury hotels, spas and salons and fit right in at airports, malls and stadiums.

The only hands-on upkeep of the machines is restocking goods; most everything else-sales tracking, inventory and sales tax-can be done remotely.

“It is a retail outlet in essence, and one that is much cheaper and more cost effective than a traditional brick-and-mortar location,” Thibodeau says. “For the distributor, it is simple – place the machine, fill the machine and watch the sales and marketing take effect.”