I was reminded recently of a night many years ago I spent at a small carnival. It wasn’t much of a carnival, just one of those empty fields filled with colored lights that you are likely to see off any highway. At the time, it seemed like a good idea to stop in. There was a girl with me and, if I remember correctly, she was wearing a Grateful Dead T-shirt in a particularly fetching manner. One of the great guilty pleasures of carnivals is the chance to show off for just such girls. To win a piece of plush is to strut the cotton candy-scented midway a conquering hero. Thus has it always been and hopefully always will be.
Naturally, we ended up in front of the shooting gallery that offered a selection of oversized plush pandas, bears and purple snakes. Behind the counter was the barker and behind him a neat row of bullet-riddled ducks. I needed only to hit three ducks with five shots to win one of the prizes. It all seemed remarkably easy, and the barker was more than a little encouraging.
It seemed a little too easy. And no sooner had I put my two dollars down than the row of ducks began to move, activated by some unseen button pushed by the barker leaning casually against the wall. I missed on the first shot, scored on the second and noticed the ducks began to move faster when I was ready to take the third. In memory, they began to fly by the front sight of the rifle at Nascar-like speed, nearly as fast as the $40 that flew from my wallet to win a $5 piece of plush.
I wasn’t aware of it at the time, but I’d just received a pretty good and relatively cheap lesson in business. Just as the ducks at the carnival shooting gallery began to move then speed up, so does the bulk vending industry. Trying to pinpoint and match up the right demographics with the right merchandise are no simple matters.
"Whatever changes is complex," Aristotle wrote more than two millennia ago in Physicae Auscultationes (Lectures on Nature). He might as well have been writing about small business or bulk vending. Bulk vending operators, perhaps even more than most businesspeople, exist in a constantly changing environment of cycling trends, shifting demographics and equipment options. Survival depends on reading these changes accurately.
For many longtime bulk operators, navigating the sea of change is second-nature. Spotting change and identifying the subtle complexities of their business environments are also natural. They instinctively conflate what they see on television and in movies, and on the Web and the street, with what they put into their machines.
However, there are some operators who are shooting at ducks that are no longer there. Even worse, they are blaming the ducks. Bulk vending has changed to an incredible degree over just the past decade. This is evident among the many smart operators switching to smaller gum sizes and higher price-points on capsuled items. Even the machines themselves have changed. New configurations offered by stands and racks allow bulk operators to confidently approach locations that were once disdainful of gumball machines. Very clearly, the ducks are no longer sitting still.