I’ve just returned from visiting several vending and amusement manufacturers and suppliers. It was a trip I had wanted to make for a while, but like most of us, work kept getting in the way! Afterward it occurred to me that I really should make time to visit my customers more often. There is so much we can learn from each other.
Everyone knows that it’s easy to sit back and become complacent. A less obvious danger is getting too involved in day-to-day details to remember why you’re in business in the first place. Have you ever tried to buy something from someone who seems to regard customers as annoying interruptions? I have!
If we’re not out there interacting with our customers and calling on our prospects, then how can we find out what they really want? What better way can there be to understand anyone’s business?
If you stop 10 people in the street, the chances are that not one will know who owns and operates vending, or music, or game equipment, or how it’s serviced and maintained. That got me thinking about our “three-tiered” industry: the manufacturer’s, distributor’s and supplier’s relationship with the operator, and the operator’s connection to the customer – or customers, since most operators sell their services to one party and their products to others, the actual consumers. This can perplex outsiders, and no wonder!
This can be a problem. Vending should be, and has been, a prime marketing channel for any company offering single-serve packaged products to consumers. What other retailing segment allows you to reach so many consumers at so little cost? Placement in vending machines is one of the most cost-effective ways to test the appeal of, and to launch, a portion-packed item. Leading consumer packaged-goods producers usually know this, although some appear to lose sight of it from time to time. It isn’t always evident to new suppliers – nor to new operators.
Operators are retailers, first and foremost. We all really need to look at our relationships not only with our customers, but with our purveyors, and find ways to improve our partnerships. Over the decades, it has been usual for operators to grumble that the suppliers don’t understand their business and don’t create the right kind of promotions for vending. Suppliers often complain that operators don’t explain what they need. It’s likely that both sides have a point – but every operator I’ve talked to who has approached a supplier with a good promotional idea has gotten enthusiastic, effective cooperation.
If you’re an operator, you probably spend time at your locations and talk with the managers, employees and the patrons. You may run joint promotions with your locations. If you don’t, this would be a very good time to start.
If you’re a new supplier, remember that the best way to find out what operators want is to talk to operators – better yet, ride a few routes with them. If you’re an equipment manufacturer who has become distracted from your job by the press of work – I know how easily that can happen! – remember how important it is to see your machines (and your competitors’) in action, on location. Purchase a product out of a glassfront vender; offer to buy a patron a cup of coffee. Try out all the payment options. Play a game of air hockey; watch the people using your machines and talk with them. Check out the look and feel of the installation. Do the machines have appropriate graphics? Are the vendible products or redemption items merchandised properly? Do you see anything that needs improvement? Find out what’s working for your operator customers, and what you could do to make their lives easier. And talk to the end users; they are your customers, too! Don’t wait for a trade show or an open house where the visitors are on their best behavior. Go see what’s really happening in the field. We are a closely-knit industry, and we need to work together to develop the greatest synergy.
I know I’ve said this before, but we all do play in the same league and there is so much we can learn from each other – even from those who are not on our team. Competition and cooperation is essential for our industry. We need to encourage entrepreneurial innovation, and to create new markets beyond the traditional workplace, street location, FEC or arcade.
The vending and coin-op music and games business has changed, and it keeps changing. We all know that the “smokestack” heavy-industrial economy, and the video game boom of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, are not coming back. It’s not unreasonable to hope that something as good or better will come along. Meanwhile we must deal with the downsizing and disappearance of many traditional vending/amusement sites, as well as smoking bans, higher taxes and skyrocketing fuel costs. We have convenience stores, iPods, coffee houses and home video games all vying for our patrons’ dollars.
The choice is ours. We can complain, bog down in administrative detail, and reminisce about the good old days – or we can get out there and work together to think of innovative ways to create new locations and find new clients, new customers and new players.