Vending world tries new tech to court Gen Y

— -- The days of plunking nickels, dimes and quarters into the vending machine — then giving it a swift kick — may mercifully be grinding to a halt.

A new age of paying by credit card, key fob and smartphone is slowly evolving as the struggling vending world tries to court a new generation that would rather touch screens than coins.

The vending industry is so intent on convincing Gen Y that it's become tech-savvy that the industry's key trade group is hosting a traveling tour of its "dream machines." The tour opens Friday in New York City.

"We now have machines that look and act like giant iPads," says Dan Mathews, COO at the National Automatic Merchandising Association. "We're changing the stereotypes."

Driving the revamp: an evolving world of users populated less by lunchtime factory workers and more by college students with midnight munchies. As the economy has tanked, U.S. vending sales steadily slipped, slowing to about $43 billion last year. And many grade schools continue to ban vending machines that sell sugar-laden and calorie-rich candies and soft drinks.

"To attract Gen Y consumers, the industry must install mobile-wallet platforms in all college vending machines," says Allen Weintraub, an industry consultant.

It's certainly vying for Gen Y with:

•Social vending. PepsiCo has a prototype with a touch-screen that's interactive. Folks can "gift" a beverage to a friend by entering the friend's name and mobile number. You can even personalize it with a short video.

•Smart vending. Kraft is testing a touch-screen machine that lets you see close-up images of the package so you can read details such as ingredients and nutritional facts. It also lets folks buy multiple snacks at a time.

•"Talking" machines. The largest vending machine maker, Crane, has a machine that lets consumers buy snacks and drinks from several machines at one time but only pay once with a debit card, stored-value card or smartphone.

•Made-to-order cotton candy. For the sweet tooth set, a new machine, the VendEver Cotton Candy Factory, dispenses fresh cotton candy on a stick in less than a minute.

•Made-to-order Ramen noodles. It takes a college kid to fully understand the munchies. So Leonard Kang, a Gen Y entrepreneur and a University of Chicago grad, has created the Ramen Noodle Station, which makes fresh, customized Ramen noodles — in three minutes.

For you vending machine kickers, Mathews warns, the new machines are built to withstand most lethal kicks. Some may even have tiny cameras to record the blows.