Gumball machines are coin-operated devices that mechanically dispense coated gum, hard candies and small encapsulated toys. These machines are generally located in high-traffic areas such as the entrances and exits of retail stores, waiting rooms, and shopping malls. Some gumball machines still dispense a few pieces of gum or hard candies for a US penny or dime, but most modern gumball machines operate on quarters or their equivalent. A few machines which feature temporary tattoos or other artwork may even charge a US dollar for their products.
Most of the businesses which feature gumball machines do not actually own them outright. An outside contractor is often granted a license to place gumball machines or other vending machines on a store's property. Maintenance, restocking, and money collection are the responsibility of the machine's owner, who may share the profits with the store or pay an established rental fee. Gums, candies and small toys are usually available in bulk, which means a gumball machine owner can realize profits after a set amount of sales. The trick is to stock a popular flavor of gum or appealing prize in order to boost sales.
Many charitable organizations use the proceeds from gumball machine sales to help finance their projects. Stores generally forgo their standard fees for recognized non-profit organizations, although the gumball machine approach often competes with non-mechanical charity boxes at the cash registers. Some stores also use gumball machines as promotional gimmicks, adding encapsulated coupons or cash to the mix. A special color or foil-wrapped gumball may also mean a free product or service. Artists and writers have also used revamped gumball machines to promote their craft. Poems or small pieces of artwork may appear in machines placed in bookstores or galleries.
As many parents can attest, stores may also use consumer psychology to boost the use of gumball machines. These vending machines are often placed strategically at a child's eye level. Colorful posters promote the possibility of receiving one of the better prizes. Children are naturally attracted to sugary candies and small toys, plus the gumball machine allows for some interaction. Modern machines may have elaborate Rube Goldberg-style mechanics which turn the gumball into a catalyst for kinetic art. Parents may often find it difficult to exit a store without making at least one contribution to a gumball machine.
One new trend in gumball machines is the introduction of a gourmet gumball. Instead of placing the machines at mall entrances, owners now rent a kiosk space in a high-traffic area of the commons. Dozen of machines now offer exotic flavors such as chocolate, watermelon and amaretto along with more traditional bubble gum offerings. These gourmet gumball machines offer shoppers a chance to try different flavors or purchase palate-cleansing hard candies.