I can’t claim to have ever worked a job or lived a life where I can rightfully belong to frequent flyer clubs, even though I have long been a member of several. In a typical year, I fly about once every two months—work trips included. So perhaps I’m just too wet behind the ears when it comes to airport culture, and vending machines like this are, in fact, typical. But I was pretty weirded out about what I encountered at an airport just a few weeks ago.
The most instantly recognizable brand on this shelf of the vending machine is the Clif Bar. Probably next is the apple juice to its left: not necessarily a famous brand like Mott’s (I cut off the name and can’t remember), but it obviously doesn’t take the average adult brain too long to process the package and deduce that it’s apple juice, even before reading any text. The other two items on this shelf, however, aren’t so easy. One is, to the best of my understanding, a device with a “GUMMY FEEL” to relieve soreness caused by teething, and the other is a pacifier. In most respects, these are atypical items for vending machines. But maybe not this one:
The vending machine is “diaper bag essentials”. What exactly does that mean? Well, the items on some of the other shelves should come as no surprise:
Criticize me for not being a regular in airports, but I know I’m not the only one who was bewildered and amused by the Huggies diapers in the vending machine. Most hilarious of all is the juxtaposition with far more typical vending machine items, like the Lay’s potato chips.
If my bewilderment toward this vending machine lasted long, I’d have only myself to blame. I was at O’Hare International (ORD), one of the world’s largest and busiest airports. And, like all airports, its patrons are, for all intents and purposes, temporarily institutionalized. There are extremely limited means by which they can get out of the place. An airport serves as a marketplace that must cater to a broad base of needs while people wait for their flights. This condition is by far the best explanation why food in airports seems so gosh-darn overpriced. Simply put, the restaurants and food vendors can get away with it; the customers have no alternative. And, at a major hub like ORD where a significantly larger number of patrons are lingering for hours during a layover—certainly a whole lot more than a comparatively tiny airport like IND—the need is vast for a submarket catering to small kids and babies; right next to the diaper on the top shelf of this vending machine is a toddler-friendly meal courtesy of Gerber. Bored kids who can’t manage a four-hour layover need distractions; even Indianapolis International has started offering kid-friendly features like playgrounds. Needless to say, a single packaged diaper in this vending machine is outrageously expensive, at $5 a pop. But a parent facing a potty emergency is going to shell out the money without hesitating.
Ridiculous as it seems to offer Cheez-Its next to Huggies, I guess its unsurprising that a vending machine called Diaper Bag Essentials features a few other more conventional options; there’s only so many things that typically fill a diaper bag. Vending machines are big; they’ve gotta stock the other shelves with something. But it reinforces just how versatile vending machines can be, despite the fact that most people typically associate them with either drinks or snack food. They can offer anything that will survive the mechanical process that dispenses them out the slot near the bottom. Non-perishables. Japan in particular has earned some notoriety for the eccentric items sold at vending machines—a list that includes crepes, ramen cups (complete with hot water), or ice cream from a cone. I’ve also seen inordinately high-value items like external hard drives or (if memory serves me well) toner cartridges at vending machines. In Japan.
Perhaps, when push comes to shove, the commonality among vending machines has less to do with merchandise—that can include just about anything—and more about the ethos that characterizes the average vending machine customer. Vending machines are not destinations. People don’t arrive at a vending machine with the thought, hours in advance, they they were going to buy something perched on a spindle behind a pane of thick glass. They’re for impulse buys—which explains why the products Americans see at vending machines bear a strong resemblance to the shelf of candy and junk food we see while we wait at the checkout line at a grocery store. Meanwhile, in airports, passengers with small children are probably more likely to succumb to impulse purchases than those without, due to the unpredictable and impulsive nature of kids themselves. What a blessing it is that vending machines are so good at offering products that people need in a pinch. No mom and dad want to suffer a plane flight with a toddler’s dirty diapers. Neither do any other passengers. Good thing O’Hare is there with all the diaper bag essentials. And Cheez-Its too.