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Mara Segal and her creation, the automated Utique Shop, which beckons from inside her Geary Street headquarters.

Minox’s DCC 5.1 MP 24k gold–plated digital mini-camera

MLB-licensed enameled S.F. Giants cuff links.

Navigating the machine’s touch screen display

Quick gifting

Vending-machine maverick Mara Segal on finding the best holiday gifts and gadgets, instantly.

How’s this for a dream: On Black Friday, you skip the stores and not-so-clickable websites to get gifts instantly by touching an actual button. That’s the pitch made by Utique Shop, an automated vending machine that dispenses thoughtfully curated goods as if they were candy bars. Inspired by the ubiquitous apparatuses in Tokyo, fueled by Silicon Valley cash, and stocked with cutting-edge products, Utique is designed for the sort of shoppers who, like 31-year-old founder and CEO Mara Segal, prefer purchasing on the go, bypassing traditional stores and the wait time for Amazon shipping. Segal created a prototype two years ago, and her latest machines have over 50 beauty, fashion, and tech gadgets displayed brightly behind a sleek honeycomb facade. Now the machines are multiplying, with two in San Francisco—where the company is headquartered—and others in various airports nationwide. In addition, Utique’s quick-click e-commerce site goes live this month. Just in time for the holidays, Segal talks about push-button shopping and what the cool kids really want this year. Westfield San Francisco
Centre, 865 Market St.; 456 Geary St., S.F., utiqueshop.com

In Japan, there’s one vending machine for about every 24 people. What do they know that we don’t? That real estate is very expensive. Tokyo is an incredibly dense and efficient city. Vending, for them, is a way to get things on the go in a city that is highly compact.

What’s the craziest thing sold in a machine? Someone sent me a YouTube video of live crabs being sold in one.

Fill in the blank: You will never see ________ in a Utique. An aromatherapy diffuser. We could describe the fragrance all day long, but I always like to smell those things before I buy them. I think items that are controlled by olfactory experience are less fun to purchase from behind glass.

The perennial joke about machines is that an item gets stuck and never drops down. What do you do if that happens? Call the 800 number and talk to someone who would log on to that machine and dispense the item again, electronically. Plus, there are robotics in the machine, so products are never dropped.

Why is it so much easier to pick one great thing out of a small boutique or out of a limited selection of items in a larger store? Retailers have to fill their stores with hundreds or thousands of products, but it’s more helpful to shoppers if collections are edited down. You wouldn’t walk into a Sephora and find one hue; you’re going to find all 80 hues in that line.

Any secret for discovering trends? I’m the kind of person who’s not embarrassed to ask a stranger, “Where did you get that?”

Tell me the world’s best stores for trend spotting. Colette in Paris. Laforet in Tokyo. Lane Crawford in Hong Kong. Selfridges & Co. and Harvey Nichols in London. Seoul, South Korea, has phenomenal retail right now. So much innovation is coming out of Asia in terms of great design.

Like what? So much in the Asian landscape is really compact; it’s easy to pack and transport. One great idea from South Korea is Alife’s earphone pouch, a wrapper that prevents headphone spaghetti. Hong Kong stores have so many sleek gadgets that double as fashion accessories, like a German-made Minox mini-camera, a digital model that comes trimmed in silver or gold.

You’ve noticed a generational divide between mothers, who shop at department store counters, and their daughters, who do not. There is a younger customer who says, “I’d rather not interact with a store clerk; I’d rather self-serve and get something on the go.” They’re used to getting information themselves. There’s a fair amount of skepticism around the sales pitch, because increasingly, more advertising and more products are being pushed at them through a variety of channels.

So, how do the rest of us shop for gifts quickly and intelligently? The key is to try to put yourself in the recipients’ shoes—what are they passionate about? What do you notice as patterns among their current goods and experiences? Do they have a favorite brand or hobby or place that is special to them? Do they have a certain aesthetic vocabulary in their spaces? I love some of the curated experiences, like chocolate-of-the-month clubs, etc., that the web offers—gifts that keep on giving. You can find a lot of uniqueness on the web, given its expansiveness.

What are the gadgets people want now? Lady Gaga’s Heartbeats in-ear headphones by Monster, ChicBuds’ ChicBoom key chain speakers, flash drives by Tokidoki, and anything matryoshka-related.

Matryoshka? The Russian dolls, which are big now as a motif, used the way the skull and crossbones were 18 months ago.

Are they replacing the owl? Exactly.

Anything futuristic that would wow me? There are many new products involving sleep management and biometrics. Lark is a wrist device that tracks your sleep patterns to make sure you’re getting a full night’s rest and syncs with your iPhone. The company’s based in Palo Alto.

Does the wristband come with Russian dolls on it?
Not yet…
 

4 Utique-curated stocking stuffers with a local story
1. For her: “Olivina bodycare from Napa. It’s made from ingredients with lots of antioxidants. It’s one of the few lines in which the fragrance is not overpowering, yet lasts.”
2. For him: “Cufflinks Inc.’s San Francisco Giants enamel and nickel–plated links. You can’t always wear a Lincecum jersey to show team spirit.”
3. For the environmentalist: “A BKR Water Bottle. The latest take on PC water containers is stylish and safe, made from glass, with a protective silicone sleeve. If you drop one, it won’t break!”
4. For your grandma: “Artisanal chocolates by Poco Dolce and Cocoa. There are so many chocolate innovations coming from the Bay Area, and they reinforce our foodie heritage.”