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February 21, 2002

Vending Machines Suck, Part Two
Robbery or Victimization?

In "Vending Machines Suck, Part One: Heartless Capitalist Bastards" I complained long and loud about one specific type of vending machine; the screw-type dispenser. I ranted about how easy it would be to improve the design, and bitched about what a pain in the ass it is when it doesn't work right, and hangs your snack. I think I made my point. Now I'm going to set my sights on a wider target that affects all vending machines. If there is one thing that all vending machines share, it is this: outrageous prices.

It's amazing how the human mind works. One dollar just doesn't seem like a lot. Even back when we had a dollar bill, it wasn't all that big a deal. Now that our dollar is mere coinage, well, it's almost worthless, right? What can a dollar buy? We think nothing of paying a dollar for a can of pop, a bag of chips, a chocolate bar, a doughnut, or a pack of gum. Somehow we blind ourselves to the harsh reality of what we're buying actually is worth.

First off, the habit can be expensive. For the longest time, I was in the habit of getting some form of sugar out of the vending machine, everyday. I didn't even stop to think that this was a $20/month habit. For that price, I could get a couple subscriptions to magazines each month, or buy a whack more TV programming. Twenty bucks is twenty bucks, and I was wasting two Swiss Chalet Delivery meals a month on sugar. For this article, however, I'm going to set aside the costs of habits like that. We all know that your daily coffee, or cigarettes, adds up quickly. Instead I'm going to examine the real cost of food from vending machines.

Exhibit number one: Sun Chips. Sun Chips are yummy - especially the French Onion flavour that I purchased recently (the inspiration for this article). Yum. However, purchasing a bag of said yumminess from a vending machine is daylight robbery. The bag claims that there are 50g of Yummy French Onion Sun Chips in the bag I purchased. Hard to believe, especially with all the air in there, but I'll give them the benefit of the doubt. Said bag cost me $1.00. Sounds about right? Let's look at it a bit differently.

You're in the produce section at your local grocer's. You see that bananas are $.69/lb. For my area, that's a horrible price! You snap and give a stern talking-to to the produce manager who's robbing you for $.69/lb ($1.52/kg) for your bananas. After your hissyfit, you stroll down the bulk food isle to get some yogurt-covered pretzels. Well, you were going to, until they wanted $4.99/lb ($11/kg)! Argh! Call the cops! Now, say you happened upon some Yummy French Onion Sun Chips further on down the bulk food isle. How much do you expect to pay? Imagine your palpitations when you see $9/lb ($20/kg) staring back at you. WHAT?? For freakin' SUN CHIPS!?!??

Well, guess what? The dollar I spent in that vending machine for those 50g of YFOSC? That's exactly equivalent to $20/kg, which converts to just over $9/lb. I, my friends, had been robbed. I just robbed myself.

Pop, or any vending machine-dispensed beverage, is another example. Typically, you can expect to pay about a dollar for a Coke or other brand-name carbonated drink. I've seen it as high as $1.25, or as low as $0.35 for grocery store generic brand stuff. But have you ever stopped to think about what it costs you to get a full case? Let's be really outrageous and say it'll cost you a full $8.00 for a case of 24 cans of Atlanta's finest brown and bubbly caffeinated sugar water, Coca Cola. Quick math, and you've got yourself a buzz for $0.33 per can. In other words, you're paying triple the retail price for a can out of a vending machine. Yes, you could have trouble writing and seeing straight and pee all afternoon for the cost of your mild pick-me-up.

The point I'm trying to make is that vending machines sell convenience, and that's it. I could stop by my local grocery store on my way home from work and pick up a box of chocolate bars. Per bar, I'd save at least 50% over the cost of a vending machine. I could also buy a case of pop, and save myself a whack of cash. If I had the wherewithal to mount an expedition to Costco, I could keep myself in snacks for a good long time, at a substantial savings to boot. Vending machines sell nothing special that isn't available to you elsewhere cheaper (with the notable exception of made-for-vending-machine pastries, which you'd probably be better off avoiding anyways). The problem is, we as consumers just don't think ahead when it comes to snacking.

Before you get all huffy with me and send me a nasty e-mail, I do realize that packaging, servicing, and distributing the products found in vending machines cost money. Salaries have to be paid, machines have to be paid for and maintained (theoretically), trucks to haul both the servicers and the snacks around have to be purchased... a whole business relies on the profits generated by these machines. I understand this, and as a wannabe capitalist, I can even appreciate this. Were the shoe on the other foot, I'd probably want to bump the prices as high as I could.

Should I be mad at the companies and people behind vending machines? No, of course not. I should be mad at myself for not having the foresight to purchase snacks in the grocery store and bring them to work, and for not having the discipline to resist the allure of the snack machine. The latter may be a case of sugar addiction, in which case the vendors are taking advantage of my weakness. Maybe. But it's a free market economy, and my pitiful amount of willpower equates to a business opportunity, which they've tapped into.

Am I trying to make a point? Geez, even I don't know anymore. Maybe I'm mad that I've been wasting so much of my hard-earned money on sugar-laced edible oil products. Perhaps I know the error of my ways, but have been too freaking lazy to do anything about it. Or maybe my blood sugar is just low again, and I'm getting grumpy.

Time for some Nibs...


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