A question raised during a networking session I attended at the NAMA OneShow was "What trends do you anticipate in vending over the next five years?" Several people raised their hands and said, enthusiastically: "Micromarkets! Healthy vending! Technology…"
My comment to the group? We are trending! This is happening right now, and has been happening for a while; it is not coming along tomorrow or in five years, as was evident from the exhibits on the trade show floor and echoed by the speakers during the convention seminars.
According to Vending Times editor-in-chief Tim Sanford, "industry advances appear to be made in fits and starts, because each innovation is followed by a period of assimilation." Yes, and not only in vending; but vendors certainly have been assimilating a new wave of new things for some years now, and -- not surprisingly -- we have now entered the integration (or digestion) phase.
A factor common to many of these trends, of course, is technology. Engineering has made wireless connectivity possible, and then affordable, which enables better communication among operators, locations, suppliers, consumers -- and unattended points of sale, too. But as NAMA chairman Mark B. Dieffenbach, The Hershey Co., pointed out during a OneShow general session, "no technology will compensate for a dissatisfied customer."
I'll go a step further and add that one size does not fit all, either. Every location has different needs, and each requires a well-thought-out approach tailored to meet those specific requirements.
And, if "technology" is a trend, there is nothing new about that. Vending always has been a technology-based enterprise. Finding and applying the best technology is essential, but the starting-point of the search is finding and applying something that will be of benefit to the customer and the operator alike.
Take micromarkets. For a "closed" environment, I think these are ideal! I like to view the micromarket not only as a site-based convenience store, but also as a combo vending machine with much wider tolerance for odd package sizes and shapes. And it offers patrons the ability to interact with those packages in three-dimensional space.
A micromarket offers nearly all the advantages of a conventional vending machine, and is easier to use. It has also allowed operators to sell food profitably, which has been a real challenge in vending for as long as I can remember.
Micromarkets are being placed rapidly as the industry becomes more familiar with the concept -- which is, after all, the next step in an evolution that began with improved vending machine payment systems being applied (often ineptly) to supermarket self-checkout lines, then in turn miniaturized, personalized and supported with new software to become micromarkets.
And we've only just begun. At OneShow, a Cisco Systems executive suggested that the micromarket concept might be broadened and integrated with other state-of-the-art methods of retailing goods and services (including vending machines) into branded "digital malls" in high-traffic venues like resort hotels.
At the other end of the size spectrum, Vendors Exchange International demonstrated a vending machine front and controller, called VE Discover, that incorporates a micromarket-type scanner for use with adjacent micromarket-style rack, pegboard and reach-in displays. The controller records vending and micromarket transactions in a single format for straightforward upload to management software. This might extend micromarket flexibility to smaller (even "four C") locations.
Let's move on to "healthy" vending. Food sustains us and is necessary for good health. Therefore, food is healthy! But we all have different tastes and desires. This is where technology can assist. Networked machines and cost-effective consumer-responsive displays enhance interactivity and make a variety of useful programs practical. Touchscreens permit customers to interact with products "virtually" by manipulating 3D images to display ingredient and nutrition labels. These all represent ways we can satisfy and learn more about the customer so we can stock our machines with items that will sell. Offering customers choices and giving them the information they want increases the health of the bottom line.
If you missed the show, couldn't attend all the seminars or just need a refresher course, there are some great articles in this issue to help you join the ongoing industry conversation. Providing a forum for operators, manufacturers and suppliers to exchange ideas is what we've been doing for more than 50 years.
I came away from this year's OneShow excited about the future, and eager to see what will come next. Things really are starting to get interesting. Stay tuned.