For the first time in years, I came back from a National Automatic Merchandising Association show with a more optimistic feeling about our industry. Sure, we were all roughed up by the recession, and yes, we are still shell-shocked. However, we are slowly emerging not just from the recession, but from our industry's own rut in which we've been stuck for years.
I spent most of my time in the New Exhibitor section, because my company had a booth this year for the first time. This allowed me to experience what it is like as a new exhibitor. It also allowed me to feel a sense of camaraderie with businesspeople from other companies, large and small, who are trying to find solutions for our industry and actively developing new products. Perhaps the most encouraging thing is that operators are finally moving forward and buying these innovative products.
One thing that really struck me this year was the relative absence of smaller operators. I remembered visiting my first NAMA show, where there were representatives of operations of all sizes. Now, however, I noticed that most of the operators at the show were from much bigger enterprises. This has to do with the natural consolidation of our industry and the pricing pressures that we face. I have always been of the opinion that in 10 years, we will have far fewer operators running much larger operations.
Along those lines, I found out that the number of wirelessly connected vending machines is rapidly growing. For example, Cantaloupe Systems now has 50,000 units in service. In regard to this growth, I think that we are only just beginning, and whether through Cantaloupe or some other provider, I would not be surprised to see one million machines connected in 10 years in some way: cashless payment authentication, remotely programmable signage and/or remote monitoring.
This will not be a linear growth path, but an exponential one. This prediction is based on the idea that a big reason for buying another vending company is cost savings. I expect that the companies making the bulk of the acquisitions will be responsible for driving the expansion in wireless technology. In other words, continued industry consolidation will be another catalyst for wireless technology adoption.
A lot more operators are considering cashless payment and more sophisticated signage options. The problem is that, at present, providers of these functions seem to be totally independent of each other, when in reality digital signage complements the cashless option.
This is directly related to the problem that the vending industry has at present. The customer is just not aware of how far we have come. As we turn the corner, it is our responsibility as business owners to emphasize our value proposition and let our customers know that we are listening and reacting to their needs.
While it is OK to relate your business to something that the customer understands, it is very clear that "business as usual" is not sustainable to many enterprises today. If you agree, then making your business appear to be more cutting-edge should make customers more comfortable with you -- not less. In fact, the things that truly will lead us out of the muck are the things that we do differently than we used to.
DAVID LEVINE is a former financial advisor and vending company owner. He now runs MB Media Brokers (Phoenix), which specializes in low-cost wireless retrofittable signage for vending machines. Founded in 2005, MB Media Brokers was born out of Levine's conclusion that the vending industry's potential is impaired by the current perception of vending. He believes that this problem can be addressed while providing additional revenue to operators. His solution is to use digital signage to convert the existing machine base into a massive network of digital billboards, capable of both broadcasting and advertising.