The substantial consumer research project commissioned by the National Automatic Merchandising Association and conducted by Harris Interactive under the sponsorship of Masterfoods USA (see VT, November) produced findings that should give us all pause. In general, the majority of respondents agreed that vending is convenient and the machines are easy to use. However, a majority regard the selection of products available through vending equipment as limited and lacking in “fresh” and “healthy” items.
This is, and long has been, the perception of vending that underlies the satirical references to vending machines in the press and in popular culture in general, a tradition that has been outraging operators since the 1960s. We have paid some attention to this over the past four decades, and it does seem to us that journalists are much less likely to take uniformed pokes at vending now than in the past. The consistent, diligent efforts by NAMA and concerned operators to improve the industry’s image have produced positive results. The current “Balanced for Life” program, for example, has received a very positive reception.
We suspect that part of the difficulty about public perception is that there are at least two “publics” involved. The majority of Americans see very few vending machines in the course of their daily existence. Those who do not work or study in an environment served by full-line vending probably form a vague opinion of the industry as a whole on the basis of the occasional cold-drink machine encountered in a self-service laundry or a parking-lot, and the even more occasional snack machine in a low-traffic public location. We’ve patronized such machines often, usually with entirely satisfactory results, but they hardly represent the vending industry as it is known to that minority of workplace and academic patrons.
This suggests a structural challenge for vending market research, and a different kind of structural challenge for the industry as a whole. We think that there is a need for detailed study of the people who actually have daily access to a bank of vending machines. Such studies have been done, here and there, for specific purposes, and the results always have been extremely interesting. These always have been well-received, but there never has been a context within which they could become commonplace.
We think that the academic initiatives launched under the auspices of the NAMA Foundation, the cornerstone of which is the endowment of a professorship at Michigan State University, might provide such a context. The conventional wisdom in vending has been formed in the course of day-to-day operations. Back when glassfront snack machines were relatively new, there was a good deal of discussion about how people “shop” them – do they start at the top right of the display, near the coin mech, and scan to the left and down? Do they start at the top center? No one knew for sure. This no longer is a hot topic, but we suspect that no one knows, to this day. It’s time we found out.
The difficulty for vending is twofold. The first need is to become more effective merchandisers, so the people who do have daily access to vending machines will use them more often, with greater pleasure, for a wider range of products. This is a hot topic, and we appear to be making progress.
The longer-term requirement is that vending become more common in the wider public arena. Vending pioneered the “retail automation” concept; many of the attempts to move vending into the public square were made in the late 1940s and early ‘50s. At that time, the technology lacked the flexibility and reliability needed for a truly practical “unattended point of sale.” As those deficiencies were addressed and mastered, the evolving industry defined itself as the solution to providing food and refreshments in more or less “captive” environments.
Of course, if we deal with the retailing/merchandising challenge in existing locations, we can keep moving from the old industrial “last-resort” model to a new one, perhaps based on the idea of “intercept marketing.” If people who have daily access to vending machines advance from regarding them as satisfactory to thinking them excellent, the climate of opinion may shift in our favor, and vending may expand into a wider arena. If patrons actually look forward to making a vending purchase, any number of desirable consequences may well result.