Image: Luxury vending machine
J Pat Carter  /  AP
A screen displays details of 24 karat gold handcuffs available for sale at the "Semi-Automatic" vending machine at the Mondrain South Beach luxury hotel in Miami Beach, Fla.
updated 4/9/2009 11:08:06 AM ET 2009-04-09T15:08:06

In the market for a Bentley sports car, a Jean Paul Gaultier dress or a cell phone, but don't feel like dealing with a pesky salesperson?

Literally at the touch of a button, visitors to the Mondrian South Beach can buy those items — as well as more prosaic hotel gift-shop staples like toothbrushes — from a new lobby vending machine called a Semi-Automatic.

In a postmodern echo of the early 20th century's Automats, where office workers could buy coffee and comfort food without talking to a soul, the Semi-Automatic peddles a jumble of more than 60 items priced between $10 and $1.2 million in a large, sleek rectangular display.

"We don't have a newspaper stand or some place where you can just buy a sundry item," front office manager James A. Bryant III said. "We've got Semi-Automatic, which is sort of an 'in-your-face' gift shop. Just like our hotel is really sort of brash and out there."

Never mind the Jean Paul Gaultier dress, the 1965 Corvette convertible or the 24-karat gold hand cuffs. Visitors who really enjoy themselves can spring for a penthouse condo on the property.

"I think it's incredible," visitor Claude Beller from Antwerp, Belgium, said Wednesday. "Out of curiosity I might buy a couple hundred dollars' worth of something, but I'm not going to buy a $68,000 Corvette."

That appears to be just the reaction New York-based Morgans Hotel Group, owner and operator of 11 luxury hotels in the United States and London, is after as it rolls out Semi-Automatics nationwide.

"We asked ourselves, if we do our job of transforming guests into gods or rock stars or whatever description you want to give them, then our customers become more daring, more experimental and especially more indulgent with themselves," Morgans chief marketing officer Scott Williams said. "So if you're in that frame of mind, what do you want to go and buy? A neck pillow? I don't think so."

The giant white-framed and purple-accented display holds row upon row of white, high-gloss boxes, identical but for terse descriptions: "Sunset Dinner Yacht Cruise for 2," "Sony PSP-2000, Black," "2000 Bentley Azure Convertible," "Gunpowder Tea Candle."

Customers can view product images and details on either of two small screens. To make a purchase, they simply swipe a credit card, tap on the product and watch as a motorized arm scoots behind and retrieves it. Products too large for one of the machine's glossy shopping bags are assigned cards that can be exchanged at the front desk for the purchase.

Other vending machines carry cell phones, MP3 players and even disposable shoes for late-night clubbers. But none sates as wide a range of cravings as the Mondrian's Semi-Automatic.

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"People just pass by it, and literally even if they weren't thinking about buying something, they sort of buy into the idea. They want to purchase something cool; it's almost a story to tell — really an experience," Bryant said. "I've seen people spend 20 to 30 minutes just looking at the different products, and just be amazed that we're selling just kooky stuff."

The biggest items, like cars and condos, the Semi-Automatic dispenses in two stages. Buyers first pay a nonrefundable $1,500 deposit that puts the item on hold. Then, hotel staff bring the vehicles around for a test drive or take the buyers to visit the property. Guests who change their minds forfeit the deposit.

"I guess for people who might not want service, it might work great," said Nidhi Agrawal, assistant professor of marketing at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management. "Some people might get a kick out of doing this. But if you get a kick out of talking about an item, gushing about it, then a vending machine might not have the value you're looking for."

Top-sellers so far are gold handcuffs, a gold rabbit's foot and T-shirts with the word "recession" parsed into "Recess Is On" on one side and "(Expletive) the Recession" printed on the other. The shirt reads like a nod to both the hotel's risk in launching a $250,000 toy in the worst market in decades and customers' willingness to play along.

"When admirers ask where you bought your 2003 Bentley Arnage t, we dare you to say you bought it from a vending machine," reads the $90,000 car's description.

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