I get to be surrounded by innovation all of the time. I’m a lucky guy. As the Director of Midas Fab Lab in Nelson BC, it’s my job to help companies accelerate their innovations by prototyping anything from manufacturing equipment to snowboards. We use 3-D printers, technology and a lot of creativity to figure out how to “make a better mouse trap”. I’m hard-wired to constantly think of how something could be better, faster and ultimately more profitable.

It was inevitable that I would need those skills eventually to solve my own retailing problem and in the process – create a solution that breathes new life into the vending industry and gives retailers large and small cost-effective ways to tap into new markets.

I gave a vending machine a brain transplant.

I realize that a statement like that conjures up visions of Dr. Frankenstein but machine learning is about taking data and making predictions based on that data. It’s the reason a website might recommend a book based on your previous purchases and make you aware of purchase options you didn’t realize existed but suits your personality. I wanted to create a vending machine that had an interactive touch screen that used machine learning to remember the customer and to help them decide what to buy based on their needs, goals and past purchases. The custom hardware I developed can be installed into any vending machine to suit whatever product is being sold and then programmed to interact with the customer to give information about the products and help the customer decide what to buy. It’s like having a sales rep living right in the machine. The purchase is then completed with payment from a digital wallet. I call these new machines the Brain STEM Toolbox. What’s really exciting to me and to the retail industry is how relatively inexpensive it is to turn an ordinary vending machine into a Brain STEM Toolbox.

With the Brain STEM Toolbox, a customized, interactive, pop-up retailing experience can be developed for less than $10,000 dollars.

Physical retail stores are expensive to run. By the time a business invests in rent, utilities, renovations and taxes – the bill is often into the six figure zone. That doesn’t even account for operating costs like labour. Many retailers are opening pop-up retail locations in vacant stores or temporary structures. This can be a challenge because you still need decor and labour and many land lords aren’t keen to have such a short lease commitment. A Brain STEM Toolbox gives you the benefit of pop-up retailing without these concerns. The return on investment is fast and if the sales aren’t climbing as quickly as you would like; moving the Brain STEM Toolbox to another location is easy to do. A Brain STEM Toolbox can help you can test a potential market, capture traffic by locating in another host store or build a clientele in a location prior to opening a permanent store.

Retail-insider.com predicts that 2018 will be the “Year of Pop-Up Retail” and goes on to state that we haven’t even scratched the surface of the potential for this format. While vending machines have a bit of a retro image – I love them. They have quite a history going back to the first century AD when the Hero of Alexandria created a coin-operated machine to dispense holy water. In the 1600’s they dispensed tobacco. A patent secured for a vending machine in 1867 was used to dispense stamps. Now with technology, vending machines can provide a fabulous automated and curated customer experience. The American Marketing Association reports that North America is behind the curve in terms of embracing vending machines fully but I see only upside to this as the market is still wide open with lots of growth potential.

Where do I see the future?

The possibilities are endless with voice activated interface and social media integration all within the scope of capabilities the Brain STEM Toolbox can eventually offer. Online shopping still only represents 9% of total retail sales and I see vending as the logical bridge between bricks and mortar and e-commerce channels.

I’ll be debuting the Brain STEM Toolbox at the BC TECH Summit from May 14 – 16 at the Vancouver Convention Centre 1055 Canada Place Vancouver BC. Stop by the SMRT1 Technologies booth and see for yourself how it works.