Reporting from Chicago — Step up to the vending machine, undergo a facial screening, and get a free Jell-O sample.
Kraft Foods Inc. is testing a high-tech vending machine in Chicago and New York that could soon roll out in grocery stores to dispense samples of everything from Oscar Mayer deli meat to Oreos.
The current offer is for Temptations by Jell-O, the brand's first product designed specifically for adults. The machine is equipped with technology to determine the age of the person requesting a sample. If the machine senses a child, a panel lights up with the words, "Sorry, kid. You're too young to experience indulgence like this. Please step away so the adults can get their free treat."
There don't seem to be any rules against parents obtaining a sample for their children. But to do so, they must walk up to the machine and be judged as an adult by an Intel camera operating as a sensor. The person either texts a code or swipes a bar code with a smartphone, and may then select one of six flavors, such as Key lime pie or strawberry cheesecake, which is promptly dispensed.
The mobile use is designed to prevent anyone from getting more than one sample a day, said Ed Kaczmarek, director of innovation for consumer experiences at Northfield, Ill.-based Kraft. The machine won't store phone numbers, but it will develop metrics about what customers like based on age or gender.
"We're creating a breakthrough, digital out-of-home experience that is showcasing the future of how a consumer can interact with products, sample more easily and also how we can drive incremental interest in purchase for the retailer," he said.
In an age when consumers are bombarded with ads on TV, the Internet, radio and mobile devices, marketers must work harder to get consumers to spend time with their brands.
Although some may balk at the idea of giving personal information to a machine, Robert Passikoff, president of New York-based Brand Keys Inc., said it's a trend that can't be stopped.
"The entire brand experience is shifting away from the old traditional model to everything that's hand-held, everything that's technologically advanced," he said. "TV ads aren't going away, but they're not going to drive sampling or engagement."
The machine, called the iSample Experience, is the result of two years of work between Kraft and Intel Corp. The first version was three times larger than the current 4-foot-wide module and was designed as a meal planning tool. The machine would determine the user's gender and perhaps suggest a grilling recipe for a man.
But that version took up too much room, and people were spending too long with it, Kaczmarek said — at least three minutes. Most users can get samples from the new version of the machine in less than two minutes, meaning more people can use it in a given day. Each version can work with three people at a time, but for the Jell-O project Kraft has opted to work with two at a time.
In the future, Kaczmarek said, Kraft could run programs that target men or women specifically. He declined to provide the cost associated with each machine, other than to acknowledge that it's significantly less expensive than airing a 30-second ad during the TV show "Glee."
Stacy DeBroff, chief executive of Mom Central Consulting, noted that Kraft was bypassing costs associated with third-party services that distribute samples. She also applauded the idea from a consumer engagement perspective.
"It's a game changer," she said. "This idea of a vending machine that gives you stuff for free and building brand connections into retail product sales is pretty powerful."
She added that Kraft's ability to build interest in a sampling program is a win on its own.
"No one talks about the hundreds of millions of samples given out every year," DeBroff said. "But they put in some vending machine dispensing samples, and everyone's buzzing about it."