People who menstruate know the feeling all too well. They’re toiling away at the office or passing through a train station when Aunt Flo comes unannounced. But the vending machine in the restroom—if there even is one—is empty, or out of order, or downright unusable because it’s 2021, and who on earth carries coins?
For almost two years now, a new breed of vending machine has been making its way through office buildings and public spaces in Boston. The SOS machine was designed by two women, colleagues who had spent a decade in the finance world going from corporate offices to hotels to fine dining restaurants without ever finding a tampon. So they built their own machine and brought it into the 21st century, with no less than five design patents, and a curated selection of health and wellness products that run the gamut from feminine care to cosmetics to skincare.
The first machine launched in the Boston Seaport in January 2020. With more than 14 locations and 40 more to come in New York, San Francisco, Miami, and beyond, SOS marks a major milestone for inclusive public space in cities that have historically been built for men. It also hints at something else, which is encapsulated by the company’s motto: “If it is good for women, it is good for everyone.”
The SOS machine is a far cry from the hard-edged steel box that currently hangs on many public restroom walls. Its corners are rounded; its delivery bay is a bright, glowing pink; it takes card and contactless payments (but no cash); and comes with a snazzy video touchscreen.
Inevitably, the touchscreen opens up a world of opportunities. First, it allows users to choose the product they want, or find out more about the brands inside (many are female-owned, like Kosas, Cora, and Teleties). Second, it can be customized based on the location, so users can stay updated on work announcements, or the train schedule, for example. Third, it makes for a prime advertising platform.
“In order to make this business model work and fix the problem, we needed to find another way to commercialize these machines,” says Robina Verbeek, who cofounded SOS with Susanna Twarog. As you trot into the restroom looking for a tampon, you can also read up on the building’s new parking rules, find out more about the company’s upcoming holiday party, or learn all about a brand’s new skincare collection.
Inside the machine is a cornucopia of emergency products, from tampons and dry shampoos to antiperspirant wipes, pimple patches, hand sanitizers, and chafing cream. All were picked and vetted by the founders themselves, and the most sensitive ones, like tampons, come prepackaged in a discreet, SOS-branded boxes. Verbeek acknowledges that many companies, like Drybar and Recess, have successfully built a direct-to-consumer model and improved ingredient quality across the board. “But what had not yet been solved is the distribution point,” says Verbeek. “When you leave the house, if you forgot something, what do you do?”
Each machine can hold up to 100 products, and a cloud-based inventory system makes restocking a breeze; companies pay a $250 per month servicing fee. Its low profile (2.5 feet tall and 10 inches deep) means it is small enough to fit anywhere and, as Twarog puts it, “hang on the wall like art.” Going cashless helps many consumers, but it does create accessibility issues for those without a credit card. So locations or companies have the option to “sponsor” the feminine products inside the machine, making them available at no charge instead of the normal price of $1. How often do sponsorships occur? “Less often than I would like,” Verbeek says.
The first machine was born in a coworking space at Boston’s District Hall—an event venue that doubles as a workspace and programming hub. (The building houses the only public restroom in the neighborhood, so SOS was installed between two gender-inclusive restrooms to make it more accessible.) Today, SOS machines can be found in locations including Boston’s South Station, Fenway Park, the Prudential Center shopping mall, and Boston Children’s Hospital. “Our vision has always been to create a network of machines that would exist everywhere you go when you leave the house, similar to how you could find a Starbucks on every other block,” Verbeek says.
Placement of the machines has been dictated largely by the pandemic and where people are spending most of their time right now. Soon there will be 35 SOS machines at the Florida Panthers’ FLA Live Arena in Sunrise, and five machines in the Florida Panthers IceDen in Coral Springs. And in just a few weeks, an undisclosed, high-traffic area in New York City will get its own SOS. The founders are also working on an app that will help users locate the nearest machine from their phone.
For now, locations skew toward large entertainment venues and sports arenas. A pink-studded vending machine boasting an array of feminine-care products may not be a glaringly obvious choice at an NFL stadium, and that’s almost the point. As of 2020, women made up 47% of all NFL fans, yet many stadiums don’t provide any options for women in need of supplies. “I’ve spent my whole life going to games,” Twarog says. “I can now buy a tampon at Fenway Park.”
SOS was built by women, for women, but it caters to men’s needs, too. (Fun fact: The very first user was a young man named Phil, who purchased an Ursa Major face balm; Twarog and Verbeek know this because they happened to be standing nearby). “There is so much in our physical world that has been built and designed for men,” Twarog says. “When we build products, we’re thinking about everybody.”