Industry members attending this year's National Automatic Merchandising Association convention may remember last year's Expo, held in Chicago in the wake of the terrorist atrocities of September 11. Air travel had been crippled, enhanced security was in the forefront of everyone's mind, and vending and coffee service operators were concerned that their clients, and public safety organizations, would implement procedures that would slow down route operations and fatally impair route productivity.
A year later, we certainly confront a difficult situation, but not quite the one we expected. Americans have taken the ongoing threat in stride, and goods and services are being delivered efficiently. On the other hand, the continuing uncertainty appears to be depressing economic activity, and businesses that otherwise are healthy are reluctant to undertake major initiatives until they get a clearer sense of what the market wants and where the economy is going.
Meanwhile, the food and beverage service industries confront a situation that offers both danger and opportunity, although neither is exactly what we had imagined, a year ago. The continued stagnation of economic activity has confronted state and local governments with revenue shortfalls that have inspired the sort of creative taxation schemes we have not seen in two decades. While revenue certainly must be found somewhere, it is important that the burden be borne equally. Measures that single out merchandise sold through vending machines for distinctive tax treatment are simply unfair. So are taxes levied on particular product subcategories, selected for no reason other than that they are popular and perceived as upscale and inessential, like the proposal in Seattle to impose a "luxury tax" on espresso.
Perhaps of wider strategic significance is the attempt to bring food's nutritional content into the public health sphere. While it may seem odd to entrust American citizens with the power to choose their government while denying that they are competent to choose a snack, the principle is not new; nor is the attack on food. The vending industry, to date, has been criticized primarily for its role in selling soft drinks and snacks in schools; and it has shared this criticism with manual snack bars run by the schools themselves. The main legal assault has been launched against the fast-food giants, because they have the money to make them attractive targets for trial lawyers and state governments.
It would be shortsighted, however, for vendors to sit back passively and assume that they are safe. The reasoning behind the continuing offensive against cigarette machines - that they were highly visible and not run by large organizations commanding much public sympathy nor the resources needed to conduct an effective defense , can be applied to snack and cold drink machines as well. It is all too easy for the evilly disposed to demonize vending as a symbol of something they are striving to destroy, for reasons having nothing to do with the nature of vending itself.
While the industry is being distracted by these developments, its services remain in great demand. The challenge is that the demand is greatest from newly streamlined organizations that often lack the volume to make them attractive vending locations. Route productivity, sales optimization and tight, responsive controls increasingly are recognized as the keys to success.
For all the above reasons, it has never been more important for every operator to attend the NAMA National Expo, and to become an active participant in NAMA and any available state or local association. A representative democracy listens to the voters, and the voters are much easier to hear when groups of them speak with a collective voice. Those who do not wish us well know this, and we must learn it too.
This year's NAMA business sessions will deal with the current child nutrition controversies, with productivity improvement and effective marketing, and other topics essential for prosperity in today's economic climate. The latest technology for increasing sales while containing costs will be on display at the expo, as will a vast range of products appealing to the evolving tastes of the American public. And the collective experience of more than half a century of dealing effectively with legislators, regulators and the media will be on tap at the NAMA booth.
For all these reasons, Atlanta is the place to be from October 17 through 19. We look forward to seeing you there.