Future’s Market?

Shaw can’t figure out what to do with the nation’s first omnibus vending machine.

“What the fuck is this?” is the greeting John Kunz, 21, gives the gargantuan vending machine dominating the parking lot of the McDonald’s at 2328 Georgia Ave. NW. The Southeast resident, on his way to visit friends at nearby Howard University, has just left the restaurant when he spots the huge white box. At 10 feet tall, 16 feet wide, and 9 feet deep, it is difficult to miss. People on the passing No. 70 Metro bus point and stare, as do regular McDonald’s customers waiting in the drive-thru line.

Behind its broad glass front, the machine offers a variety of goods. A row containing half-gallon jugs of milk sits above compartments holding pre-cooked Madras lentils and Clif energy bars. On the left side of the machine, where the nonfood items are, Trojan condoms share shelf space with a stack of Huggies diapers. Essentially, it’s an entire convenience store in a box, with a touch-screen control panel and slots for cash and credit cards.

A few small stickers identify the machine as the Tik Tok Easy Shop. It opened for business on Feb. 19, 2002, and is the first store of its kind in the entire country. “Individuals have little time in their daily schedules,” says Mark McGuire, director of development for Tik Tok Easy Shop company, which is based in Bethesda. “We have taken items that most people need on a daily basis—milk, bread, eggs—and placed them in their travel path so that they don’t have to go out of their way to get them.”

“It’s a really good idea,” says Lajuana Acklin, a 20-year-old Howard student from Arkansas. Acklin is drinking a soda purchased at the Subway sandwich shop across the street, but she stops to admire the machine’s contents. “I probably will use it, because you can use cash or your credit card,” she says. “It’s a quick place to get toilet tissue and that sort of thing if the store isn’t open.”

Tik Tok Easy Shop approached McDonald’s Corp. about placing the machine on the Georgia Avenue lot because the location fit the company’s formula: It has a high volume of foot traffic and a relatively low number of nearby convenience stores. “And we like the community,” McGuire says. “There is a great mix of people.”

McGuire stresses that the project is just the first test of his company’s automated retail technology but says that the experiment has been a successful one: “It’s been very well-received, usage has been high, and thus far it has met the criteria we set for a successful test.”

Still, new customers are hard-won. On one Thursday night in April, several people bypass the Tik Tok in favor of minimarts and eateries, even those that are much farther away. Shaw resident June Thomas is among those unwilling to abandon her usual convenience store to give Tik Tok a try.

“Well, I already knew exactly what I wanted to eat when I left the house,” says Thomas, 47, who lives just a few blocks away from the machine. She squints at the structure and examines the laundry detergent and deli sandwiches with a skeptical look: “I wouldn’t use it, because I would think that it’s too expensive—because it’s so convenient.”

The prices in the Tik Tok Easy Shop are, in fact, substantially higher than those found in superstores such as Wal-Mart, or even in the local supermarket. But they’re competitive with prices at convenience stores in the vicinity. The Texaco station convenience store across the street from the Tik Tok charges $1.15 for the same 20-ounce sodas that the Tik Tok sells for $1.00. A half-gallon of milk at the Rhode Island Avenue 7-Eleven costs $1.99, compared with $2.00 at the machine, but it requires a milelong walk to save the extra penny.

Jayna Lacy, 20, another Howard student, pulls into the McDonald’s parking lot at about 11 p.m. to use the machine: “I’ve used it before, and I like it. I’ve gotten a sandwich, eggs, milk. It’s convenient—Giant’s lines are too long, and CVS closes too early.”

But Lacy’s enthusiasm isn’t rewarded this time when she tries to make a purchase. “Oh, no!” she says. “Is it not working?” She fiddles with the touch screen for a moment before jumping back into her car, off to stand in a grocery-store line or hunt for a drugstore that is still open.

Lacy isn’t the only person who’s been met with a “Servicing…please wait” message and forced to take her business elsewhere: At least five would-be customers were turned away in a two-hour period on the same Thursday night. On two subsequent visits to the machine, on a Saturday and Sunday, the same message was displayed.

McGuire attributes the service problems to kinks in the technology. “Unfortunately, over the past week, we have had issues with the software of the machine,” he says. “Again, we are testing the technology, and there are some bugs, but we think we’ve done a decent job of communicating to the community that this is a test.”

Even if the machine were a more reliable place to stock up on Wonder bread and baby food, however, many Howard students say they would still bypass the Tik Tok Easy Shop. “I don’t live in a nearby dorm, so it’s not that convenient for me. And if something goes wrong, how can I get a refund? What if I buy something that’s spoiled?” argues Shamieka Donawa, 21, a student from New York City.

Tik Tok Easy Shop has contracted the Beltsville-based Monumental Vending to handle such customer concerns. Those who experience problems and want money back can contact Monumental, at a number printed on the machine, and receive a full refund—the same way that goofs at traditional vending machines are handled. As for spoiled items, McGuire says that the contents are replaced every other day and carefully refrigerated.

“The unit is maintained at 35 degrees—the same temperature as your refrigerator at home,” he says. “It keeps milk, sandwiches, and eggs at a proper temperature, but doesn’t harm other items, like computer disks. In fact, in some cases it helps preserve them. The toilet paper you buy from the machine might be a little cold, but other than that, there are no problems.”

On a recent Sunday afternoon, a group of elementary-school-aged kids discover another use for the machine: They escape the beaming sun by sitting in its enormous shadow to eat their Chicken McNuggets. They blow spitballs at passers-by using red-and-yellow-striped McDonald’s straws, then duck behind the machine to avoid being seen.

During a lull in pedestrian traffic, they notice the Tik Tok’s screen flashing “Servicing…please wait,” and one kid decides that, since no one can use it anyway, he should use his drinking straw to spray it with Hawaiian Punch. “Oooh, you’re going to break it!” one of his friends taunts. “So?” he replies. “Who cares?” CP