The late Morris (Tiny) Weintraub, longtime publisher of VENDING TIMES, had a doctrine, or principle, for writing editorials. "Criticize the operators," he would say. Those who remember his "Tiny Talks" column will recall that he practiced what he preached.
We've come to recognize that this advice was good, for several reasons. First, because this is a very self-critical industry. In the early 1970s, while the old "smokestack" industrial base was only beginning to recognize that it had a problem, vending operators were worried about their complacency, their excessive devotion to large blue-collar workplaces as the core of the business, and the industry's evident inability to find anything new that could be vended in large quantities (the elusive "10th Product"). This sense that things are going wrong and it's necessary to do something about it has remained strong in this industry for more than four decades. It is a very healthy attitude indeed. One might wish that it had been shared by the automotive and financial services industries.
Second, of course, there always are things to criticize. For as long as anyone can remember, a perennial consumer complaint has been that vending machines don't work reliably – they take your money and don't deliver the product, the coin return doesn't work, and so on and on. Everyone knows this, and the vending industry has worked diligently to find technical solutions, from escrow capability on coin mechanisms to the positive vend assurance controls that now are offered on just about every new machine, and available in kit form for a great many older ones. But the problem persists.
From one perspective, it may be insoluble. Most of the complaints we hear are from people who have encountered balky equipment in public locations, often high-traffic venues. We suspect that many of the operators serving these places got the contract by offering the highest commission, which has not left them enough profit to afford highly skilled route drivers or supervisors. We also infer that some of these locations are trying to do the vending themselves, chasing the ancient visionary gleam of "keeping all the money."
Whatever the explanation, it's important to keep in mind that vending patrons in general, and particularly those using machines in street locations, have no idea who owns and operates them. For them, a vending machine is a vending machine, and if it does not work, then vending machines are unreliable.
It is possible, too, that the problem can be solved. The pioneers and advocates of the full-line vending revolution devoted extraordinary amounts of time and energy encouraging the use of labels telling patrons how to report malfunctions and how to obtain refunds. This effort has gotten good results, but the call-for-service label has an inherent defect: it requires the patron to do something. Nowadays, with people tending to carry cellphones, they may be more likely to call for service, but someone standing in the middle of a busy site and superintending several children may not be willing to make even that effort.
We think the "social networking" model that has attracted so much attention of late eventually may evolve into something that can help improve service, and not only vending service. In the meantime, as we've observed before, operating companies that don't remember the doctrines hammered out four decades ago can take some straightforward steps to improve service. Perhaps the most important are to visit locations in person, or have a supervisor do so, as often as possible; and encourage drivers to test the machine carefully after servicing it, noting anything that doesn't seem right to them. In affinity-group locations, of course, it's possible and highly desirable to cultivate cordial relations with the clientele, and to encourage them to pass any complaints along to the driver during regular deliveries.
We must point out, too, that self-criticism is especially valuable in periods of enthusiasm for stronger government oversight and regulation. It is not difficult for anyone even slightly conversant with the apocalyptic fantasies that have been popular for the past several decades to imagine a future dystopia in which vending operators are licensed, like contractors, and the requirements for licensing are set largely by the organizations that are certified. This is pretty much how the medieval guild system worked – and, while there are those who admire guilds for a number of reasons, no one ever claimed that they promoted innovation or economic expansion.
During the last prolonged period of economic uncertainty and stagnation, in the late 1970s, President Carter identified part of the problem as a "crisis of confidence" (which the media eventually shortened to "malaise"). He got little praise for that diagnosis, but we thought there was a good deal of truth to it. We think it also applies to the present situation. In such periods, there is a vague but powerful public desire for safety and predictability. We will do well to recognize that desire and strive to address it ourselves, lest worse befall.