They used to drop packets of salt and vinegar crisps and cups of putrid coffee. But now vending machines have acquired a new range of products: mini vibrators, bottles of "love liquid" edible lubricant, silicone ticklers and "lust fingers".
Bars and nightclubs across London, Manchester and Newcastle have begun to offer a range of sex toys, for around £5 a go, through the fuchsia pink Tabooboo machines, which are mostly sited in toilets to render the pondering customer a bit of privacy. Some, however, have popped up in the middle of hairdressing salons, giving the old adage "Something for the weekend, sir?" a new meaning.
Alphabet Bar in London’s West End was the first location to have a machine and placed it on the wall in the middle of the bar. Manager Geoff Todd says it is used daily. "Some people use it just because it’s in the bar, some make a special journey, maybe because they are too embarrassed to go into a sex shop. Some buy the toys because they are a novelty, some do it for a laugh, some buy them as presents. It’s been a great success."
Alan Lucas, managing director of Tabooboo, plans to roll the machines out across the country and has begun exporting them to the United States and Italy.
"It’s about challenging the way people think about sex toys. So many other products are vended and I wondered why we couldn’t vend sex toys. It comes from the idea of people not wanting to buy things over the counter.
"The products all fit into a box two or three times the size of a cigarette packet. We sell mini vibrators that are as strong as big ones. The most popular product is a vibrating rod ring which is something he wears which vends at £5."
He went on: "The younger generation has a different attitude to sex toys and what we are doing is taking it away from the porn associations because the products we sell are in anonymous, discreet and well-designed packaging."
The vending machines follow an explosion in the sex toys industry with upmarket companies such as Coco de Mer, Myla and Agent Provocateur commissioning designers to create works of art out of their pleasure-giving products.
The more downmarket Ann Summers, one of the UK’s most profitable private companies, has a gross annual sales turnover of more than £155m.
Last night the Catholic author Piers Paul Read, who advocates the moderation of sexual appetites in this week’s Spectator, said the idea of the vending machines was awful. "Sex is not a game. These toys sound horrible," he said.