Smart vending machines could change e-commerce as we know it

Lowly vending machines that spit out candy, soda and smokes are so last century.

New-fangled machines that sell down jackets and cell phones are on the verge of becoming vital cogs in the e-commerce, want-it-now revolution — serving as around-the-clock, around-town warehouse-like distribution points that make the last mile to customers’ front door smooth and easy.

Equipped with Web-enabled technology, the new vending machines will soon link customers who order certain goods online with delivery services like Uber and Lyft that will ferry the order to your door.

“We are just months away from doing this,” Richard Hashim, president and chief operating officer of Swyft Inc., which operates roughly 1,000 of these smart vending machines that he calls “micro stores.”

Privately held Swyft has deals with CVS, Uniqlo, BestBuy, Sugarrfina, Nespresso and others. While Swyft at first placed its $20,000 smart machines in airports and malls, it is now placing them where customers live — at gyms, in hotels and on college campuses.

“Retailers want to have touch points with consumers where they work, live and play,” Hashim said. Among other benefits, the smart machines provide customers access to retailers’ goods even when their stores are closed.

With the new where-the-customers-are strategy, Swyft hopes to increase its number of retail partners to 25 this year from just eight last year.

Here’s how Hashim’s strategy works. The inventory in Swyft’s smart machines — from cell phones to detergents to coffee — and the location of the machines that have the goods will be cloud-based and available to delivery drivers.

So if a customer breaks a cell phone at 3 a.m. or needs a coat at midnight and buys it online, the order can get routed instantly to a delivery service that can locate the item in a nearby smart machine, get it and then deliver it to the customer within an hour, according to Hashim.

The delivery component solves a growing challenge for retailers who want to offer one-hour delivery service.

Equipped with a camera, Swyft’s smart machines will even be able to tweak inventory over time by tracking the gender and approximate age of customer traffic that walks past.

The machines will also call the cops if they are vandalized — although thieves will find that tough.

“You’d need a crowbar to crack this glass,” Hashim claimed.