What's the first thing that comes to your mind when you think about vending machines?
Guilty-pleasure snacks filled with high-fructose corn syrup, artificial flavors, sodium and saturated fat? They're convenience and instant gratification at their best.
But a local Chicago company is putting a spin on vending machines and offering a more healthful alternative: activewear.
Arnab Majumbar and James Stewart, a married couple based in Chicago who are also business partners, launched VendMyT in October. They've installed vending machines at two mallsLandmark Century Mall in Lake View and Block 37 Mall downtownwith 55-inch interactive touchscreens. Users can browse through the startup's line of men's and women's activewear, called Made of Chicago.
The idea emerged on a cold day last year, when Majumbar and Stewart arrived at the gym and realized they forgot to pack their shorts. They thought, "If only there were a convenient way to buy workout clothes without having to go back home or all the way to a fitness store."
Buying clothes in vending machines, Stewart said, "is not common [in the United States]. In Japan, you can buy everything from food and umbrellas to ties ... in a vending machine, but that's not very common in the United States right now."
"While people are used to buying clothing online, it's seems odd to buy it in a vending machine, even though it's very similar and offers instant gratification," Stewart added.
So Stewart, with his background in business administration, and Majumbar, with his experience working as a fashion designer, took a city-sponsored certification program in vendor development, worked with engineers and patternmakers and launched their line of Chicago-inspired activewear.
"Chicago doesn't have a lot of its own clothing lines, so we're trying to pay homage to the city," Majumbar said. "A lot of people here wear activewear all the time—they wear it to the coffee shop, when they're out grocery shopping, and [we wanted] to have a Chicago brand that's really our own."
Majumbar, who designed the line, said the garments are of high-quality, sweat-wicking material that can stretch in four directions. Chicago skyscrapers influenced the fabric, cuts, lines, shapes and even some of the colors ( such as tower black ), Majumbar said.
"The city is often portrayed as war-torn. When I moved here as an immigrant, I never felt that way," said Majumbar, who hails from India. "I felt that Chicago was really clean and new, the buildings are awesome, it has all four seasons, winter can be cold, but life goes on."
While their clothing line is Chicago-inspired and -designed, the items are assembled in China and India, which Majumbar said was the most viable option for now.
The lack of textile manufacturers in the Chicago area presented a challenge, and while there are some in Los Angeles, the production costs would've meant they'd have to sell their garments for much more than the $25 to $50 price points, Majumbar said.
Getting their clothes made locally would require up to $750,000 in investments, he said.
"Hopefully, we'll be able to raise that kind of money so that we can be a completely Chicago-manufactured, -designed and -retailed product, but we don't have the capital to produce here," Majumbar said.
For now, Stewart and Majumbar plan to expand the number of machines and locations. In November, they started selling their activewear in Galleria Mall in Andersonville, and their items are also available on Amazon.
"I think there's lots of potential in the hotel market and gyms," Stewart said, "and universitiescollege students tend to be more willing to be experimental and try something different."
Since launching, customers have been happy with the garments, Stewart said.
"The reception on our products has been wonderful," he said. "We've had no returnswe've only had positive feedback from friends and customers who've bought the products on the machines or Amazon."
Majumbar added one of the challenges of selling from a vending machine is that customers can't touch the garments or try them on, but he said their company has made it easy to return the products if customers are dissatisfied. However, their clothing line is offered for sale at a traditional storethe Andersonville Galleria.
"One benefit is that it's new and it's a novelty, and people would be willing to try something different," along with the location and convenience of a traditional vending machine, Stewart said.