i.Jooz gives fresh twist to vending machines

Most would think of vending machines as dispensing sugar loaded, overpriced snacks which should only be patronised when all alternatives have been exhausted. But homegrown Fruits Vending Pte Ltd is aiming to shake up this notion with its i.Jooz brand of orange juice vending machines.

With over 400 machines deployed in Singapore and having expanded overseas to 20 countries though machine distribution or loose partnerships, the company attempts to fulfil its mission of providing better wellness and lifestyle for consumers of its freshly squeezed orange juice.

Founded in 2016 by chief executive officer Bruce Zhang, Fruits Vending oversees development, manufacturing and servicing of its line of i.Jooz smart vending machines. The vending machine parts are manufactured in a factory in China, and are shipped to Singapore first for assembly and testing before being deployed either locally or to overseas locations.

A cup of the freshly squeezed juice requires three to five oranges, depending on yield, and the entire juicing process is completed behind a clear plane for consumers to observe, much like a Rube Goldberg machine. These machines may appear to fulfil the simple task of just squeezing whole oranges for juice, but is more complex than it seems.

Mr Zhang, who majored in electrical engineering in university, worked for a semiconductor business as an engineer before arriving at his business model. Finding conventional vending machines dated and lacking in flexibility, he saw opportunity to integrate technology into the machines to boost sales and efficiency.

Leveraging Internet of Things (IoT) capabilities, each i.Jooz vending machine tracks a myriad of data indicators in real time and communicates this to an information hub. This real-time data tracking allows for greater efficiency through optimising resource distribution, unlike traditional vending machines that are restocked on a fixed schedule.

The 20 to 25-minute process of restocking, cleaning and clearing used oranges is carried out on an ad hoc schedule - when sales are low - to minimise sales disruption. Internal temperature and current stocks of oranges are tracked to ensure freshness and safety of the juice being dispensed.

Consumer analytics allows the company to discern locations where demand is high or low, and redeploy their machines to match demand. Ensuring a high turnover improves efficiency as there is less wastage.

Payment can be made through scanning QR codes displayed on the vending machines' LCD screen, along with any promotional content. This digitalised payment system can also be tailored to accept different currencies for overseas operations.

With so many modules in place, system stability was one of the hardest challenges the company had to solve before rolling out the first generation of i.Jooz vending machines. Mr Zhang says: "As you put more systems in place, you start to encounter stability problems that need to be rooted out. Every step of the process must work – or else you won't end up with a finished product."

It took a year of development before version one of the vending machines was operationalised.

Although already on version three, Mr Zhang explains that one of his company’s strengths is being able to constantly work on improving the vending machines. Competing vending machines are sold as a finished product, and hence lose out on the opportunity of providing after sales services and upgrades.

Increased system stability and miniaturisation are improvements slated for the next generation of machines.

"The greatest challenge that we face would be distribution," Mr Zhang shares. "It is hard to get the required approvals to place our vending machines, as there are many layers of approvals required. People are uncertain about new things, especially when we are so familiar with regular vending machines."

Food courts and hawker centres with cut fruit stalls are especially wary, viewing the vending machines as encroaching on their businesses. Shopping malls also perceive the machines as a competitor to their tenants that serve beverages, which adds to their reluctance in releasing rental spaces.

Operations are generally smooth, with oranges being shipped from Australia and then washed at the company's processing facility in Singapore. They are then bagged into lots of 100s to facilitate restocking. Due to the ad hoc replenishment schedule of the machines, two teams for day and night restocking are required. Mr Zhang notes that manpower is hard to fill for the night shifts.

With the assistance of Enterprise Singapore, Mr Zhang has been able to break into foreign markets. Enterprise Singapore’s bilateral connections have provided his company with the networking to distribute its machines to more than 20 countries.

In partnership with ForPurposeCo, his i.Jooz machines are rebranded into Juice For Good for the Australian market. This rebranding allows Fruits Vending to explore initiatives such as using oranges that are rejected from farms due to blemished skin or are simply misshapen. Other initiatives include using strictly biodegradable packaging.

Abroad, the S$2 pricing is maintained to capture the foreign market. A similar cup of juice would cost RM7 (S$2.30) to RM9 in Malaysia, 50 baht (S$2.30) in Thailand, and A$3 (S$2.80) to A$4 in Australia. Mr Zhang notes that the certification granted by the National Environment Agency has aided him with credibility to begin operations in Australia and New Zealand, where food safety is held to a high standard.

He states that he intends to keep prices fixed for as long as he can. Rather than spend on marketing, he chooses to let the affordability of the juice speak for itself.

"What we're doing here is quite revolutionary. We want to deliver the message to the public that you can buy juice that is healthy for you, and at a very low price,” Mr Zhang says. "Not like other bottled beverages, it's something good for your health."