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What It's Like to Have a Tech Vending Machine at the Library
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Posted On March 26, 2024
Recently, while visiting the University of Michigan’s Shapiro Library, I came across something that I thought was so innovative that I knew I had to write about it. Once you go through the doors of the library, you can see that right along with the vending machines for snacks and drinks, there is a machine that sells technology products.

Customers have a variety of products to choose from. On the day I first saw the vending machine, products included batteries, Apple EarPods, an Apple AirTag, USB-C chargers, and calculators. With the help of Dana Fair, who works on the University of Michigan’s information and technology services (ITS) communications team, I got in touch with Rich Wong, the director of campus tech, who shared quite a bit about what brought the vending machine into being at the university.

GETTING A MACHINE

Wong told me that the University of Oklahoma does this type of vending, and the prices for the basic tech accessories in it are what you would find at the regular university store. Wong said he and his team identified a vendor for the development of the machine by putting out a request for proposal. While multiple vendors submitted bids, a decision was made to work with a vendor that creates both smart custom vending machines and wall-mounted vending machines. The vendor’s clients include Pringles, Tetley, Heineken, and Fujifilm. As for the decision about what products to sell, Wong shared that university sales data was analyzed, and he and his team identified the most popular products. Based on samples of the selected products, the vendor worked to calibrate the machine. However, some products were incompatible with the machine because they were too lightweight. So, the vendor made changes so that these products could work with the machine.

Tech vending machines are currently in use at the University of Michigan’s Mason Hall, the Ross School of Business, the Taubman Health Sciences Library, and Shapiro Library. In addition to these partners that agreed to house the machines in their buildings, ITS’s information assurance and treasury services departments were also brought into the planning conversation.

PAYMENTS AND MAINTENANCE

So, how does the university ensure that when a product is sold, there is proof that it was purchased, in case the machine does not deliver the product? I learned that the machine has a camera in it to verify that the product was vended. With the machine taking cashless forms of payment, there was also an issue that arose around the need to process that payment. Wong shared that he and his team had to reach out to credit card processors whose fee structure would make sense for vending tech. While debit and credit cards work with newer machines that sell snacks, some companies’ fee structures have a vending limit of $100, which proved to be a barrier to some of the products that could ultimately be sold in these machines.

How about if someone isn’t happy with their purchase and wants to return it? When it comes to the machines located in libraries, are the library staffers responsible for handling refunds or restocking? Wong said that the partners are not responsible for restocking the machine. For those who need to make a return, they can go to either of the two campus Tech Shop locations during their business hours. The Tech Shop is a not-for-profit store, with the sales covering the cost of operation. The revenue produced by the machines is not split with the libraries that house them, but the machines do offer a convenience to those who may be studying there, as they can get technology accessories without leaving the building.

FUTURE PLANS

In the future, Wong hopes that more machines will be purchased. Ideally, the installation of more machines would provide access to technology that would require no more than a 15-minute walk from any location on campus. This might be especially advantageous to the student who may be working on an assignment into the wee hours of the morning and would need access to tech accessories outside of normal business hours to turn in that assignment that may be due early the next morning.

How have the lessons from this experience been shared with others? Wong pointed out that there have been discussions with other universities that may be interested in doing something similar. He remains excited about the idea of using these vending machines to reduce tech access barriers by working with partners to provide innovative solutions for campus community use.


Sophia Guevara received both her M.L.I.S. and master of public administration degrees from Wayne State University. She is a columnist for Information Today and has also been published in Computers in Libraries, Online Searcher, and Information Outlook.

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