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Time To Upgrade The Tampon Dispenser (#GotBitcoin?)

State laws requiring schools to offer free feminine-hygiene products have led to some upgrades, but many machines remain stuck in the ’70s. Time To Upgrade The Tampon Dispenser (#GotBitcoin?)

Time To Upgrade The Tampon Dispenser (#GotBitcoin?)
This Photo Illustration Shows A Bobrick Machine That Requires Users To Insert A Quarter To Get A Tampon. The Company Also Offers Options That Accept Tokens Or Dispense Free Supplies.

Food and soda vending machines made some major technological advances over the years. Some allow mobile payments. Others can customize soda flavors.

Sanitary napkin and tampon dispensers, however, have been stuck in time.

Most of the dispensers found in women’s bathrooms in department stores, offices and public venues were designed several decades ago. They still require quarters. They often get jammed, or sit empty because no one has manually checked the supply levels, leaving women who forget their own supplies without a basic necessity.

Manufacturers have begun making some improvements, but critics say they have a long way to go to add modern features such as electronic payments or real-time inventory tracking so that janitors can restock when products run low.

“The tampon dispenser hasn’t changed in decades,” said Stephanie Loffredo, who works in the advertising industry and is developing a modernized machine. “It’s a forgotten-about technology no one is thinking about. It hasn’t evolved at all.”

A “Free the Tampons” campaign, led by advertising veteran Nancy Kramer, is advocating for free access to tampons and pads, arguing that they are as necessary to women’s hygiene as toilet paper or soap. Some states, including California and New York, have adopted legislation mandating that schools that meet certain criteria provide students with free tampons and napkins.

“This is becoming a new requirement for schools,” said Nilofar Yagana, business director for accessories at Bobrick Washroom Equipment Inc., of North Hollywood, Calif. “Nobody pays for paper towels. It makes business sense for us as well.” The new laws also have led dispenser makers to make upgrades.

The business is ripe for innovation. Nearly half of the more than 1,000 American women who participated in a 2013 Harris Interactive poll reported that they had obtained supplies from a dispenser in a public restroom at some point. Only 8% reported that the dispensers worked all the time, according the online poll, conducted on behalf of the Free the Tampons campaign.

Cleveland-based Hospeco has been selling the same metal-box dispenser with a coin mechanism for at least 40 years. The company has taken some recent steps to upgrade. Its new machine issues free supplies with the push of a button and has a programmed delay of 8 to 12 seconds to avoid product hoarding in places like public schools.

Today those dispensers account for the bulk of the company’s feminine-hygiene dispenser sales, said Bill Hemann, Hospeco’s vice president of sales and marketing. It recently added a window to some of the dispensers so cleaning staff can see if supplies are out, he said.

Still, such upgrades are limited compared with other industries, some critics say. “An air freshener can speak through the cloud and let the operator know when it needs to be refilled,” said Rick Hazard, vice president of marketing at Waxie, a San Diego company that sells and distributes dispensers along with other bathroom supplies. “There’s no reason why the feminine-hygiene dispensing systems can’t also be included in that.”

He noted that the tampon dispenser’s deficiencies can go under the radar: “It’s not like a Coke or snack out there for everyone to see,” he said. “It’s behind the scenes.”

Some big manufacturers aren’t convinced further investments are feasible.

“While there’s a lot of neat technology out there, I don’t think the costs are in line with where they need to be just yet,” said Dennis Knapp, director of product development at Impact Products, a Toledo, Ohio-based manufacturer of dispensers and pads, among other janitorial supplies.

Impact says its most popular machine is the J6-RC, a metal-box dispenser that can take quarters or be programmed to issue free supplies. Impact claims a roughly 25% share of the U.S. commercial feminine-hygiene dispensing market, which is about $50 million to $75 million, according to Mr. Knapp.

Ms. Loffredo, an associate director of social marketing at Huge, an Interpublic Group -owned digital ad agency, attributes the lack of innovation in tampon dispensers to “period stigma”—people being afraid to talk about periods out in the open—as well as to a lack of women in tech.

Time To Upgrade The Tampon Dispenser (#GotBitcoin?)
A Hooha Dispenser.

She worked with her agency to develop Hooha, a Wi-Fi–powered dispenser that distributes tampons when users text a phone number found on the machine. The system works out its own jams and keeps track of supply levels.

Her team at Huge rolled out a prototype of the technology at this year’s South by Southwest conference in Austin, Texas. Huge is hoping to ramp up production soon, including through a partnership with a large manufacturer of tampons.

“A lot of men don’t realize it’s a problem,” Ms. Loffredo said. “The women’s restroom is a closed-off space. We’re not talking about pads or tampons in public, and there’s a gender gap in technology. There’s a lack of women sitting at a table coming up with ideas and innovating.”

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