Another year, another show. There is something to be said for viewing an industry through the lens of annual gatherings. It provides the kind of perspective generally associated with time-lapse photography. Longtime friends grow a little older and the newcomers to the industry seem a little younger.
Although trade shows are generally about the future, amid the hoopla of new products, there is also a good opportunity to look back and take clear-eyed stock of the industry. For instance, now that an economic recovery finally seems to be underway, it is gratifying to note that bulk vending weathered the storm better than many industries. It has been a rough couple of years, but bulk vending has lost no major players on either the operator or the supplier side of things. And the industry's suppliers have not cut back on producing new and exciting merchandise.
However, some still claim the industry is shrinking. This could be true, but anecdotal evidence tells a different story. I have not noticed a reduction of the number of bulk machines on the street. Certainly some significant regional retailers are no longer in the picture, but the mom-and-pop stores, the backbone of bulk, are still hanging in there. And small operators are continuing to push into new types of locations.
The most significant change over the past few years is the sizable reduction in the number of operators specializing exclusively in bulk vending. For better or for worse, operators have moved into new equipment categories. A quick and decidedly unscientific survey during the recent Amusement Expo found full-time operators offering only bulk vending equipment in short supply. Each year that number seems to shrink.
Operators I spoke with at the show are still invested in bulk vending and show no signs of abandoning it. They are more sophisticated and efficient in the way they manage their routes. For many of these operators, the past few years of a tough economy have taught them the value of seeking out efficiencies and cost savings in things like overhead and route logistics. That is to say, when the going gets tough, the tough get better.
It is also worth noting that the collocated bulk vending and amusement shows perfectly match the needs of operators. By design or luck, NBVA members now have a one-stop shop in the newly formatted show.
One takeaway from the show that I did find somewhat distressing is the refrain of "when things get back to normal." You could hear it from both operators and suppliers. They spoke of "normal" wistfully. Pessimists talk of a "new normal" of lowered expectations and ever-diminishing results. The operators at the show talked about a "normal" that seemed to recall the halcyon days of a decade or more ago.
In my view, the true normal is transition, change and adaptation. These are the things that make an industry stronger. We see this model in virtually every business, from technology to entertainment. And bulk vending is no different. Luckily, the ability to adapt is one of bulk vending's stronger attributes. So, while there may not be a new normal or old normal, attending the recent trade show left me with little doubt that there are better days ahead.