Vending machines sell iPods to go

A San Francisco company is now selling iPods through vending machines.

You want an iPod? It's over there: just beneath the NyQuil and next to the Gatorade. Apple Computer's hot digital music players may be better associated with the company's hip Apple Stores, but over the past few months, they've also started to pop up next to less exotic products in special vending machines built by Zoom Systems.

Since April, the San Francisco company has been selling iPods across the U.S. in "robotic product delivery systems" (don't say the words "vending machine" around Zoom Systems executives; they find the term archaic). The first iPods were sold in Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, and the players can now be found in "Zoom Shop" machines operating in malls, hotels and grocery stores across the country, the company said.

Though Zoom Shops sell plenty of other products, including digital cameras and snacks, the iPod is the top seller, said Rick Cusick, Zoom Systems' executive vice president of merchandising. "It seems to unleash an incredible impulse opportunity," he said. "You can walk up and buy and iPod in 20 seconds."

Buying music to play on the iPod, however is slightly more complicated, and since Zoom Shops do not sell tunes for the players, people may be reluctant to pick up an iPod to help kill time during a long flight.

The iPods are often purchased as gifts, however, and people who are turned off by the shopping experience at consumer retail outlets seem to respond to the instant gratification offered by a 7-foot-high, (2.13-meter) 7-foot-wide machine, Cusick said.

People who change their minds after buying an iPod can mail the product back to Zoom Systems for a refund, Cusick said. "We offer a 30-day return if you have any buyer's remorse or if you have any issue with the product."

Having just phased out the iPod Minis, the company is now selling the iPod Shuffle and iPod nano in its machines. Next month, it plans to begin selling Apple's latest video-enabled iPods.

Zoom Systems hopes to have more than 100 of its mechanical shops in operation by the end of this year and is planning for about 600 machines next year. In addition to Atlanta, the machines can be found at San Francisco International Airport, and Zoom Systems is in negotiations with 30 other airports, hoping to make the machines a common sight for U.S. travellers.

But iPod fans who are wondering how to get 796 quarters through airport security need not worry: the Zoom Shops take credit and debit cards, not cash.

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Robert McMillan

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