New York Daily News Sunday Magazine, March 28, 1993


New generation of vending machines custom design to buyers' tastes


Vending machines used to be dumb Automats that exchanged coins for mass-produced candy and soda. New vending machines built around computers are tiny, self-contained businesses.  They lure customers, make sales pitches, take custom orders and manufacture the final product.

Jeff Arcel, president of a computer company, used to spend hours combing stores for sheet music when he visited New York.  On his last trip, he found a copy of "Someone to Watch Over Me," by George and Ira Gershwin, at the NoteStation machine.

For $3.95, the vending machine at Manny's Music on W. 48th St. not only printed the song but raised the pitch of all the notes to make it easier for Arcel to sing - all within minutes.  Arcel will be performing the tune with his swing band in his hometown, Whitefish, Mont.

Justine Roehr, a meeting planner with U.S. Trust, used to design greeting cards on her personal computer.  Now she goes to a computerized vending machine in Rockefeller Center.  She cna choose from more than 1,000 different designs, updated monthly, and insert personal messages in the same typeface as each card's inscription.  The process takes five minutes and costs $3.50.

Tulsa General Insurance in Tulsa, Okla., sells automobile insurance through vending machines, approving applications and printing documents on the spot.  Map companies are working on custom map printers.  Other machines make business cards, party invitations, stationery and postcards.

Arcel believes there's no limit to the number of applications for these information vending machines.  His company, World TravelFile, is building an automated travel agent, which will show videos of possible trips and then sell rail and excursion tickets to customers using credit cards.

A European railroad and worldwide tour organization are financing the computerized service, which travelers should be able to find in European railroad ticket offices and hotels in a year or two, says Arcel.  "We're in the Morse Code stage for this type of system," he adds.

NoteStation's dishwasher-sized enclosure is actually a huge library of music, encoded on silvery data discs resembling audio compact discs.  By touching a computer screen, a customer can navigate through and index of 2,700 songs, including five versions of "Stairway to Heaven" and six of Pachelbel's Canon.  He can preview the sheet music on the screen, alter the pictch, if necessary, and listen to the result.

Finally, a laser printer behind the counter spits out the finished copy. 

The machine sells for $12,000, says Tim Roberts, a sales representative at MusicWriter, the California company that makes NoteStation.

Owners get a free subscription to new discs that add 200 songs a month, as well as a year of free service supplied by IBM.  They keep 40% of each sale and send the balance to MusicWriter to cover royalties.

More than 100 NoteStations have been installed throughout the United States, but Manny's has the only one in Manhattan.  Henry Goldrich, the owner, had long wanted to sell sheet music, but couldn't fit the display racks onto floors already crowded with drum sets and guitar amps.  His customers, mostly leather-jacketed rock musicians and wanna-bes, have to turn sideways to navigate the aisles.

Goldrich couldn't even hang racks on the walls, which are covered floor to ceiling with celebrity photos marking the store's 58-year history.

A young, doelike Sarah Vaughan beams into a radio microphone on one wall, while The Doors stare sullenly at customers from another.  The NoteStation takes up less than 10 square feet and makes eight to 10 sales a day, Goldrich says.

The greeting card machine in Carlton Cards down the block does even better.  Shortly before Valentine's Day, Roehr, the meeting planner from U.S. Trust, stood at the refrigerator-sized CreataCard unit assembling a card for her sweetheart.  "I would never go to the racks anymore," she said.  "I like the personal touch."

Behind her, a line of people waited for their turn.  The machine sold 300 cards at $3.50 each in the four days before Valentine's Day, says Patti Zinni, a district sales manager for American Greetings, which owns the store and the machine.

After choosing what the card would say ("I don't know if I like you or love you...") and typing her personal message ("Thanks for a great time!") and signature, Roehr watched through a window in the machine as it shuttled a thick piece of recycled paper back and forth, printing each color in the four-color design.

American Greetings has placed 2,400 machines in gift stores, drugstores and supermarkets in the U.S. and Canada, says Rhonda Rybka, assistant marketing manager for CreataCard. 

Hallmark also offers card machines.

"Whenever there's something new, New Yorkers want to try it," says Zinni.