LOS ANGELES — At Hollywood and Highland Center, mere steps from Hollywood Boulevard’s souvenir-hawking dives, tourists can drop up to $1,000 on fine caviar.
But they aren’t pampered with white-glove service. Tins of the delicacy are dispensed at the tap of a button — from a vending machine.
After decades of dispensing junk food, vending machines are putting on airs.
High-tech versions are popping up at gas stations and shopping malls, peddling edibles more commonly found at restaurants or specialty stores. Some offer Wi-Fi and touch screens that entertain shoppers while they wait. Many accept credit or debit cards, and a few even sell very expensive items such as jewelry.
“There is a lot of innovation happening in vending machines,” said Omar Khedr, industry research analyst at IBISWorld. “It’s occurring in niche markets like organic foods, propelled forward by access to new technology and convenience.”
Sprinkles Cupcakes is installing its “Cupcake ATM” at all 16 bakeries around the country. L’Oreal tested a vending machine in New York during the holidays that scanned a shopper’s outfit and recommended complementary makeup. San Francisco start-up Momentum Machines is making a device that cooks up customized burgers with no help from human hands.
Such vending extravagance is driven by consumers with increasingly picky tastes who still want convenience on the go. The boom in mobile and Web-based shopping also has trained customers to browse and buy with no help from salespeople or waiters.
“It’s a case of technological innovation at an affordable price,” said Christopher Salyers, author of “Vending Machines: Coined Consumerism.” “The Internet has only proliferated this worldview of pay-and-click consumers.”
Long before McDonald’s, coin-operated vending machines served pies and sandwiches to armies of harried workers. But the U.S. has since fallen behind Europe and Asia, where futuristic machines offer a vast array of goods including gold bars, eggs and live beetles. In Japan, automated kiosks sell heads of lettuce after growing them under artificial lighting.
Innovations are now driving a renaissance in U.S. self-serve kiosks.