Thomas Murn, right, talks to a potential client in front of “Vicki,” a high-tech “vending machine” that Murn has created. Murn will make San Diego the company’s West Coast headquarters starting this year. Photo courtesy of VTM

Thomas Murn, right, talks to a potential client in front of “Vicki,” a high-tech “vending machine” that Murn has created. Murn will make San Diego the company’s West Coast headquarters starting this year. Photo courtesy of VTM

— In the next few weeks, the ViaTouch Media (VTM) headquarters will be taking shape in the Sorrento Valley area.

The office will feature sleep pods and cold brew coffee machines for its 25 or so employees — and a couple of “Vicki’s.”

Vicki (short for ViaTouch Intellishelf Cognitive Kinetic Interactions) — essentially artificial intelligence — is the company’s latest iteration of its high-tech vending machine.

“It’s the future,” said Thomas Murn, 52, founder of VTM. “It’s like SIRI or Alexa in a machine, but when you pick up an item, you can ask any question about it.”

Where the machines can go and what can be stocked in them is up to the clients, but Murn envisions them being placed everywhere from college campuses, to hospitals and hotels, and businesses.

Smaller Retail Formats

Zoe Leavitt, a CB Insights senior analyst, said the automated retail vending machines could help retailers, especially ones that might sell fresh foods.

“I think it’s a trend we’re going to see continuing in the future as retailers are downsizing their real estate footprint,” she said.

“America has more retail space per square foot than any other country in the world by a huge margin, so I think we’ll continue to see a contraction in a sort of traditional brick and mortar retail store, and in their place we’ll see more of these tech-enabled, smaller retail formats,” Leavitt added.

While Vicki is unique, Leavitt said that the machines aren’t the only ones in the automated retail market. There’s other startups like Bite, a self-ordering touchscreen kiosk, Cargo and Bodega, both based in New York.

Valuing the Experience

“As the vending machine operators’ industry becomes more saturated, companies have been forced to innovate to attract consumers who are increasingly valuing experiences over the products themselves,” said Meghan Guattery, retail industry analyst at IBISWorld. “While some have opted to diversify their product offerings to include nontraditional vending products, such as durable goods like headphones and video game consoles, others like ViaTouch have instead focused on technological innovation.”

Some of VTM’s earliest machines have been around since 2014.

Murn said there are 100 prototypes now functioning across the country in hotels and major businesses, including in Marriott hotels, Citibank and the Apple campus, to name a few, for both public and private use.

“So we’re testing,” Murn said. “And we took all of those learnings to develop Vicki into what it’s becoming now.”

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