“We’re going to help you survive this”: How this Carlton vending machine is helping local traders keep trading

The Automatic Main Street vending machine. Source: Grosz Co Lab.

On the usually bustling Lygon Street in Carlton, a vending machine has popped up, dishing out the wares of local businesses and bringing a little bit of joy to residents on their daily walks.

The #AutomaticMainStreet initiative is the brainchild of Kate McMahon, owner of urban strategy agency Hello City, who brought it to life with the help of design studio Grosz Co Lab and its creative director Laura Camilleri.

While retailers in the inner Melbourne suburb are closed due to COVID-19 restrictions, residents can treat themselves to books, sweet treats or toys, or even pick up a voucher for a dining or wine tasting experience.


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Everything you love about Lygon Street in a little vending machine! We were delighted to be asked to contribute to this gorgeous community initiative dreamed up by a local family to support small businesses during the lockdown❤️. We’ve selected two books for the vending machine: 📙The White Girl by Carlton legend Tony Birch and 📘How to Write the Soundtrack to Your Life by author/bookseller multihyphenate powerhouse Fiona Hardy. They’re sitting alongside a wealth of treats from our Lygon neighbours @lamamatheatre @heartattackandvinebar @agostino_wine, @poppyshop_carlton and many more. If you’re a local passing by the front of @jimmy.watsons.wine.bar on your daily exercise loop, stop and have a look! #readingsbooks #shoplocal #shopsmall #automaticmainstreet #tonybirch #fionahardy #thewhitegirl #howtowritethesoundtrackofyourlife #lygonstreet #projectrestorecarlton #backyourbookshop @hellohellocity @groszcolab

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McMahon and Camilleri have worked together on collaborations in the past, and they’ve also co-created the Project ReStore collective, focused on helping communities rebuild and reinvent during and after times of crisis.

“Once COVID hit, we were seeing the devastation that was occurring across all of our local community,” Camilleri explains.

“If we bring together our strategic and creative practices, if we could find ways to support these traders and communities with some creative and pro-bono initiatives, it could be our little way of giving back and using the skills that we have, collectively.”

This area has “a really lovely spirit to it,” Camilleri adds.

“It was hard to see that being crushed by the current lockdown situation.

“Although it’s obviously an extremely important thing we have to do to keep safe, it’s very difficult for all those traders and artists to survive this difficult period.”

Push for change

This initiative is also something of a family affair. McMahon and her family have paid for the project, she tells SmartCompany.

Her mother-in-law is selling homemade face masks through the machine, and even her kids are working on something to offer local residents.

The vending machine itself was an impulse buy, she admits. But, it was driven by factors she had been thinking about for some time.

First, she had been considering how retail and hospitality had been restricted by the COVID-19 pandemic, and thinking about alternative ways for traders, artists, creatives and non-profits to reach an audience, she explains.

“The vending machine fit into that.”

Hello City has also been looking into automated retail, particularly post-COVID-19.

“We’re expecting to see those popping up on main street over the next five years,” she says.

“We’ve been looking at ways to do automated retail that’s controlled by the local community.”

And finally, having spent time in Japan, she’s seen how many products can feasibly be sold through the medium of the vending machine.

“There’s a lot more potential to a humble vending machine,” she says.

Hello City owner Kate McMahon. Source: supplied.

And, while the more traditional purchases such as lollies and books offer some support to retailers, vouchers also give people the opportunity to support local hospitality venues by purchasing things they will redeem when businesses can reopen.

For example, residents can purchase a wine tasting and grazing platter from Jimmy Watson’s, with a historical experience taking them through nine decades of the business’ history.

Or, they can purchase an evening experience with the founders of wine bar Heart Attack and Vine, to be conducted either remotely or in-person in the future.

The iconic La Mama Theatre, which burnt down in 2018, is selling tickets to its special reopening event for locals.

And Indigenous Hospitality House, a space offering accommodation to Indigenous Australians who are in town supporting family members in hospital, is selling ‘lucky dip’ vouchers, that could earn winners fresh produce from the garden or dinner in the kitchen, for example.

All of this provides much-needed income to help these venues survive until they can reopen, McMahon says.

Source: Grosz Co Lab.

“We’re going to help you survive this”

For McMahon, this has been about building collaboration in the community she loves.

It’s connecting businesses to each other, and giving local residents a way to help support traders too.

“Through this process, there’s been a strengthening of existing networks which has really made a difference,” she says.

“It’s a chance for us as residents to show we’re going to find ways to help you survive this.

“The businesses that are most at risk are the ones that contribute the most to our sense of community. The really small, independent businesses, they’re the ones that are really struggling.

“We love them here in Carlton, and Carlton is nothing without those guys.”

And, Camilleri adds that a project like this can bring joy to the community. Or, rather, harness the positive energy that’s already there and bring it to light.

“People are really willing to try and support everybody in little small ways,” she says.

“We knew the community spirit was there.

“Under the surface, there is so much energy and passion and joy from all the creatives and traders … We just wanted to find a way to amplify that.”

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