The various items you can dispense from Utah vending machines
In 1884, William Henry Fruen filed a patent on his “Automatic Liquid-Drawing Device” in the US. Nearly a century and a half later, the general public knows the invention by a different name—vending machines.
While you may still associate them with the waters and sodas of old, vending machines have seen a significant uptick in commerce and non-commerce use alike in the century and a half since their creation. Now, automatic dispensers across the state of Utah are flipping the narrative for the distribution method.
According to The Washington Post, there are 5 million vending machines in the US.
At least 10 of these vending machines dispense toothpaste, menstrual kits, actual beehives, and more. Dubbed “Giving Machines,” these specialized vending machines were rolled out as part of the Light the World initiative by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 2016.
“The campaign is an effort to encourage acts of service,” says Karl Cheney, a mass media specialist for the missionary department of the Church. “In our brainstorming sessions, someone said offhand, ‘Wouldn’t it be easy to ‘vend’ service?’ From there, the idea transformed into the Giving Machines, where anyone can perform an instant act of service.”
After procuring three 30-year-old vending machines from a local vendor in Salt Lake City, the team was tasked with filling them. The Giving Machine team turned to global and local charities to better understand needed resources—in the typical machine, four rows host items that members in the community need. In Hawaii, for example, users can choose a card that sends a child to summer camp or pays someone’s utility bills. The remaining two rows supply goods that can be shipped worldwide.
Getting buy-in wasn’t so easy in the beginning, though.
“You’d be surprised by how many local charities we asked to participate said no,” says Mike Grass, public relations director for Boncom. “I don’t think they understood the logistics of putting a charity in a vending machine, and lots of people were put off by the idea. It just seemed weird. It was different.”
Even when the team got local Utah charities to sign on, they struggled to find a place to put the makeshift vending machines.
“It was just challenge after challenge,” Grass says.
Eventually, a spot outside the Joseph Smith Memorial Building opened up, and the vending machines found a home. In the first year, the Giving Machines saw more traffic than anyone expected.
“When we started this back in 2017, it was very much a publicity stunt,” Grass says. “It wasn’t something that we thought would continue past year one. We expected a few photo-ops, a press release about ‘vending service’ or something—that’s really it. But when I turned around after we plugged the first machines in, there were already 20 people in line.”
The motors burned out on all three machines before the year was over.
“People loved that it was an experience,” Grass says. “Standing outside of the machines in Salt Lake, you can watch groups of people take turns deciding what they want to donate and pushing the buttons. There’s almost always clapping when the cards fall.”
While the excitement surrounding the machines was welcome, Cheney says, both his team and the original machines weren’t prepared for it.
“We had no prior experience with vending machines as a distribution method,” Cheney says. “The nature of a vending machine is to do a couple of transactions a day. Not hundreds, continuously. By the end of the season, we were piecing them together with duct tape.”
It wasn’t just the physical failures of the machines, either: Cheney’s team needed the machines to communicate with a centralized accounting system to track donation amounts and charity names.
“100 percent of all donations go back to the charity,” Cheney says. “The Church covers all the costs, including the credit card transaction fees. And all of that can get really complicated—definitely out of the capabilities of a standard machine.”
In year two, the team decided to invest in custom machines that could handle the increasing foot traffic.
“What we have now are lovingly called ‘Frankenstein machines,’” Cheney says. “Feel free to buy as many chickens as you want—we can handle it now!”
The “Frankenstein” Giving Machines were accessible during the winter months across the country—from Las Vegas to New York City. That is, until winter 2020—when the Covid pandemic put the Giving Machines on hiatus.
The Giving Machines team bounced around several different solutions to preserve the experience but decided it couldn’t be replicated.
“We seriously considered an online option,” Cheney says. “And we could have done it—we could have a website with a digital screen and animate the card falling. If we did it this way, we would honestly make a better machine, a more efficient one. Physical vending machines require someone to fix them when they break and restock items when they run out. There’s no way around that without completely changing the format. But people didn’t want us to change anything, and they still don’t. They want the sound, to see the coil spin. They’re not getting any physical items, but all of those moving pieces, getting to watch the card they selected fall into the basin. That’s the reward. People fell in love with the physical thing.”
While moving the machines online might have made donating easier, it wouldn’t necessarily make it more profitable for the charities the machines were benefitting.
“I’ve seen people try to take a picture of the card and miss it before it falls,” Grass says. “When that happens, they almost always decide to go and buy something else, sometimes over and over until they snap that picture. Those are extra donations that we wouldn’t get if we were online. It’s something really weird about our psyche, just watching this dopey card brings us so much joy.”
In the end, the official machines taking a 2020 sabbatical didn’t stop people from craving the joy they got from “vended” service. Cheney says a group of Church members in San Antonio decided that when they couldn’t get a machine in their city, they’d make their own.
“It’s wooden, painted red, uses all the same graphics and everything,” he says. “They use a pegboard with 72 different items on Amazon, like a gift registry, and you can scan the QR code to buy pots and pans, whatever is needed.”
It’s not just the people of San Antonio either—Cheney says the Church receives emails like that every day.
“The vending machine was a stroke of genius,” he says. “There’s nothing that can replace that unique, meaningful, and memorable way of giving. It’s a magical thing to see so many people inspired by it.”
By “many people,” Cheney is talking about hundreds of thousands. Over 200,000 visitors stopped by in 2021 alone, and the team expects to hit nearly 800,000 by the time the machines wrap up—foot traffic numbers that rival those from pre-pandemic years. The average donation is between $5-30, Grass says. While that seems small, the math of yearly donations at that rate adds up quickly, all of which funds a different charity, family, or individual.
One thing isn’t different this year, though. Out of all the donation options, from sheep to shoes, the “Three Chickens” card continues to reign supreme.
“30,000 chickens were purchased by mid-December,” Grass says, just a week after the 2021 machines were placed. “That’s coming from about 12,600 individual transactions.”
In that same week, over 300,000 polio vaccines were donated. At the Las Vegas, Nevada location alone, cards for 1,600 dental hygiene kits fell into the Giving Machine’s basin. The magic lies in taking a solitary experience—stopping by a vending machine—and turning it into an event.
“Every time I visit the machines in Salt Lake, there are groups of people taking photos of themselves donating,” Cheney says. “People show up in huge numbers to buy ‘gifts’ for each other, to post pictures of them donating. It’s non-stop service, and it’s really making an impact. We just had to get people together around a vending machine. That’s all we did, and the service followed.”
Leslee Thorne-Murphy, a professor of English and an associate dean in the College of Humanities at Brigham Young University, also saw value in a vending machine as a unique distribution method.
Her machine’s stock? Short stories printed on recycled receipt paper, dispensed for free.
“No matter what you’re interested in reading, we have something that would interest you,” Thorne-Murphy says. “Classic stories, personal essays, non-creative fiction, and poetry, you can read any of it within seconds of selection.”
That’s thanks to the Short Édition, a French non-profit that the professor came across while visiting London.
“I loved to watch people interact with the Short Édition in London,” she says. “Business types would hurry out of their offices on the way to commuting home, and they’d stop to grab a story and read it on the tube. I was entranced with this idea, both for the dispenser itself and as a distribution method as a type of publication. It’s not a magazine, a journal, or a publishing house. It’s a vending machine that’s publishing these stories that are short and interesting enough to fit into the spaces of our hurried lives.”
After another meeting with the non-profit, Lorne-Murphy successfully advocated for two machines on her campus, making them the first (and only) Short Édition locations in Utah.
The short story distributors arrived on BYU’s campus in late 2020, when the Covid pandemic continued to rage across the world. Still, despite campus closures and limited access to the machines, they still drew substantial attention.
“We dispensed over 10,000 stories within the first few months of the launch,” Thorne-Murphy says. “The reaction was overwhelmingly positive.”
She credits part of this success to the way the machines operate: they’re completely touch-free, making them safer to use by the public.
The short stories were so popular during their first year that Thorne-Murphy and the department encouraged BYU students to submit their original work to Short Édition for publication.
“Students and faculty from across campus submitted [so many] stories and poems and creative nonfiction that we won a new dispenser,” Thorne-Murphy says. “It had been a dismal year, and seeing how high performing our students were, how excited they were to engage with culture and language and literature, physically, on-campus…it was very uplifting for all of us.”
The investment was a big one—each dispenser costs several thousand dollars and requires a monthly maintenance fee—but BYU is a year or so into the machines, and the excitement isn’t dying down.
“Even after the novelty wore off, we continue to share stories at a good clip,” Thorne-Murphy says. “Right now, we dispense several thousand stories every year.”
Short Édition also allows BYU administrators to track which dispensers, types of stories, and time of day are most popular. If you’re curious, BYU’s campus community is a big fan of fiction in the morning, before class starts, and during lunchtime.
“It’s brought our campus closer together,” Thorne-Murphy says. “This type of access to literature and learning for free is unique. We’re about educating people in bringing the benefits of great literature to everyone and anyone who wants them, and that’s what using a vending machine model does. It’s so beautifully retro and forward-thinking at the same time. It catches your attention, and then it holds onto it.”
Thorne-Murphy says she’s seen fewer students staring at their phones since the launch, too.
“We’ve had so much engagement with the machines that we had to increase our budget to order more paper,” she says. “We’re reading more, we’re writing more, we’re learning more about each other. It’s been incredibly fun to watch and be part of.”
While vending machines are generally seen as a form of commerce, Thorne-Murphy believes in Short Édition’s utilization of them for the future of nonprofit work.
“Their funding model is not to make the common person pay—the one who’s actually grabbing the piece of literature as a bit of a respite from whatever else they’re doing in their day—but instead the organization that’s interested in providing that literature in the first place,” she says. “That fits right into the role that universities play, and the machine itself fits perfectly onto a college campus. It’s a great match. It just made sense.”
Many for-profit organizations across Utah have picked up on the same trends Grass, Cheney and Throne-Murphy discovered. Carvana launched their first car vending machine in Lehi, and Charlotte’s Web placed a CBD vending machine at the top of a climbing route in Moab.
“I think the draw of vending machines is that everyone knows how to use one,” Cheney says. “Whether it’s the ease of accessibility that’s drawing you to one, or the strangeness of what’s inside it, people aren’t going to stop using them.”