Just about every business, profession and craft has its own vocabulary. This can be annoying to those not initiated into its mysteries, who often denounce it as “jargon,” but it is an important aid to communication. The terms in such a vocabulary often are common words to which a specific meaning is assigned. It is possible to express a concept like “location” in standard English sentences, but it can take awhile. Those involved in vending, coffee service, coin-op amusements and music and contract foodservice all know what it means, so there is no need for circumlocution.
An industry’s terminology also influences the thought patterns of those who use it, and so it may be valuable to bring it out into the light of day and devote some conscious thought to what we call things. If nothing else, this can be an aid to speaking clearly to people outside these industries. And occasional redefinition may help in adapting to a market that is changing with unprecedented speed.
When coffee service was in its infancy, the pioneers who had come to it from vending thought of themselves as “operators” while others sometimes called themselves “dealers.” Nowadays, manufacturers who restrict availability of their equipment to particular operators often refer to the ones they select as “distributors.” These distinctions probably don’t make a great deal of difference, but do indicate some difference in the way the role of the operation is perceived. Is it primarily a sales organization, or a provider of an equipment-based service, or a medium for delivering equipment to people who want it? The company’s management and personnel know what they do for a living, but their self-definition may influence their perception of their role in the marketplace.
The term “distributor” also repays study. In the immediate postwar years, many distributorships came into existence to represent one of three (or four) jukebox lines. The respective manufacturers gave a distributor the exclusive right to sell their jukeboxes in a defined territory, in return for which they required that the distributor sell no other jukeboxes. As cigarette machines came along, followed by other kinds of vending equipment and by games, there was an attempt to adhere to this model, but it soon began to unravel. And many distributors got involved in related activities, such as remanufacturing (or brokering the sale of) used machines, and providing technical services beyond those simply required to keep “their” factory’s machines working. Some also began to distribute vendible products, maintenance supplies, and so on and on.
Again, the company and the manufacturers it represents surely know what kind of business it is. But thinking of a modern full-spectrum sales, service and support organization as a “distributor” in the 1950s sense of the word may tend to mislead a manufacturer in regard to its precise relationship with that organization.
We continue to like the term “operator” better than any alternative to describe the individual and the company that places, collects and services equipment. Here and there, over the years, such companies have found it useful for legal reasons to identify themselves as “owners” rather than “operators” of equipment. We all know what we mean when we speak of an “operator,” but it can be surprisingly difficult to decide who is an “operator” and who is not.
The industry has always had to deal with establishments that own and maintain their own equipment. Even at the height of the full-line vending revolution, some very large companies chose to set up their own in-house vending operations, sometimes hiring experienced operators to run it. More than a few hospitals and educational institutions always have chosen to take this course, too. If they join the trade associations and share industry concerns, they are welcomed as a sort of vending operator. This is as it should be.
On the other hand, a smaller business that decides to buy its own vending machine and keep all the money (as it’s usually phrased) is regarded as transgressing into “location-owned equipment.” This always has been seen as a bad thing, and in the old days, it usually was.
However, we can envision many situations in which better service to customers might be provided by a mutually profitable arrangement between a location that, for whatever reason, cannot or will not deal with a concessionaire, and an expert in the installation, filling, collection and maintenance of vending equipment. We hope any “operator” who has the chance to take part in such an arrangement will not be deterred by a definition!