Drinkers travel miles to buy soft drink with mobile phones

Would-be customers travelled for up to an hour to use NTT DoCoMo Inc.'s first mobile phone-enabled soda vending machine. Trial services of the special Cmode vending machine, which allows users of the I-mode service to pay for cans of soda using their cell phones, began Monday -- but not without a few problems.

Run in partnership with Coca-Cola (Japan) Co. Ltd. and Itochu Corp., the Cmode trials allow I-mode users to load credit into electronic money accounts from the vending machine. When they want to purchase a drink, users can do so using the stored credit. The system verifies the user's identity by scanning a barcode on the cell phone screen via a small scanner on the front of the machine. [See "DoCoMo to launch e-money trials," July 30.]On the first day of the trial, I-mode users tried out the service at a machine located in Shibuya, one of the trendiest districts in Tokyo. Yuiko Nezaki undertook the hour-long journey from Yokohama City in Kanagawa, a neighboring prefecture of Tokyo, with a colleague just to buy "a can of Coke", but "I've been struggling with registration at the Coca-Cola site for the last 20 minutes and still haven't been able to get a can of Coke yet," she said.

Although Nezaki found the service difficult to use, "it would be great if this sort of service becomes available everywhere, in places like convenience stores," she said.

Her colleague, who declined to give his name, said that if this service works well he would consider switching his cell phone service to NTT DoCoMo.

However, the service did not work well and the two left in search of refreshment elsewhere. Problems continued until 1 p.m. Monday, caused by a glitch on the main server, according to Tomonobu Tominaga, manager of e-vendor marketing for Coca-Cola. Users were unable to buy drinks using the service during this time.

One determined user, Daisuke Moriki, had loaded credit worth 500 yen (US$4.20) from a vending machine at another location, and had come to this machine hoping it would let him buy a drink. He waited for half an hour before being told by Tominaga that the server was ready.

The purchasing part was much faster. Within one minute, Moriki had his can of Coke.

He found out about the trials from Coca-Cola's Web site. "I find this service using a cell phone is fun," he said. "I hope the cell phone will replace the wallet soon," he said.

The only part of the transaction that Moriki didn't like was that, after scanning the bar code on his telephone's display, the machine displayed his name -- something he said he disliked for personal security reasons.

After the barcode is scanned, users can do more than just buy a drink. The machine can also print out a map of the neighborhood or discount coupons for local restaurants. They can also collect loyalty points for promotional merchandise. A user who doesn't want to use credit still can collect points, by purchasing a drink with coins and scanning the barcode.

The trials will continue until the end of December, with 25 vending machines installed in Tokyo.

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