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SYDNEY -- Welcome to the era of "smart vending machines." Coca-Cola Co. has teamed up with Australia's telecommunications giant Telstra to try out a new service that allows customers to buy a bottle of soft drink from a vending machine via their mobile phones.

The idea is to provide a convenient way of buying a Coke if a customer does not have any loose change on them -- the traditional form of vending machine payment.

Launched April 16, the Dial a Coke trial continues till the end of May. The trial involves 17 vending machines at Sydney's main commuter destination, Central Railway Station.

Customers call a number indicated on the vending machine and follow the instructions. The purchase amount is credited to the machine but the transaction is charged to the customer's mobile phone account. The purchase appears on the customer's next mobile phone bill along with the vending machine's location.The cost is the same as when a customer uses coins to operate the vending machine, with no extra charges for the cost of the call.

Telstra OnAir's national production development manager, Greg Day, said that the trial provides "a glimpse of the opportunities provided by Telstra's innovative wireless applications."

A year ago Coca-Cola's Atlanta head office announced it would invest $100 million with a U.K. communications and information technology firm to make "smart" vending machines that would tell bottlers when they're empty and eventually allow for cashless purchases.

The five-year deal with London-based Marconi was designed to help Coke bottlers improve inventory management for more than 500,000 machines worldwide. The technology allows distributors to know such things as which brands are selling best.

The ultimate application of the technology was to allow for cashless sales giving a customer the choice to buy a drink with a credit or debit card, or charge it to a mobile phone account.

There are more than 50,000 Coke vending machines in Australia, of which over half are online and can advise the company when they are getting low on stock. --Andrew Hornery

Copyright April 2001, Crain Communications Inc.

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