Politics has become an increasingly important factor in the business decisions of many Americans, and a chain of events has put our industry directly in Washington's crosshairs. Over the past several months, I have been talking to vending professionals who have told me the details of regulations, like nutritional labeling, that our industry is facing. This battering is not going away, so we must take action now to avoid becoming the "next tobacco" in the United States.
First Lady Michelle Obama is now heading up a $1 billion initiative to combat obesity in this country. The recently enacted healthcare bill's nutritional labeling provisions, the "penny an ounce" (at least) soda taxes being proposed in many states and related measures are provoked by the overly simplistic idea that our industry and the products we sell all have something to do with America's obesity problem.
I would declare that this argument makes very little sense, but unfortunately, right now public perception formed by the media favors on wreaking havoc on vending unless we step up and do something about it.
We cannot avoid this political tide, but what we can do as operators and suppliers is be proactive with our customers. Our customers love the choices that we give them, and many would be deeply upset if certain items in the machine were removed. We have all heard the joke about the 110-pound HR director who never uses the snack machine, but thinks that people would like healthy choices in the machine.
What we need to do is avoid the appearance of weakness and defensiveness -- we need to make it very clear that we provide service and choice. We need to allow our patrons to make the choices that they want to make, but at the same time we can educate them about the effects of those choices from a holistic, lifestyle point of view. Whether they choose a bag of peanuts or a pastry on any given day is only one in a series of decisions made daily.
When you talk to consultants about our industry you will hear a common theme: "We are not very good at communicating with our customers." Regardless of how we do it, this needs to change. For example, I don't know how useful it is to tell people how many calories an item has if they don't know how to live a healthy lifestyle. We need to educate our customers that our service is a mechanism to help them live any way they want, and we need to educate them on how our service fits in with the lifestyle they choose to embrace.
Informing our customers about how to make healthy choices is a great way to lift us out of the perceptual dung heap that we are in and take the high ground on this issue.
Whether you are an operator, a product supplier or an equipment manufacturer, this has to be of concern to you. Since operators are the direct links to customers, the bulk of the responsibility falls on them. But none of us is free from this responsibility. Whether it is a sign, a pamphlet, a text message or a TV commercial is not the issue. We need to be sending a message to our customers that we are getting out in front of the issue or our industry will be eroded away.
I know we can do better because, as my old mentor used to say, "People don't care how much you know, they want to know how much you care." If we take the time to educate our customers and let them know about the choices they can make, they will do business with us because we add value to their lives.
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.