The vending industry in the United States enjoyed sales of $38,695,200,000 in 2000. Almost all those sales were of food and beverage items in single servings, for immediate consumption. That figure does not account for sales through coffee service nor manual foodservice operations. By any criterion, vending is a major retailing medium.
It's important to keep this in mind when considering a difficulty that has perplexed forward-thinking operators for decades: many large suppliers continue to view their market as consisting of supermarkets, convenience stores, perhaps restaurants of one or several kinds, and "all other." We are part of the last category, and it's time (again) to ask why.
Part of the problem is that vending, especially full-line vending, is not highly visible. As it has evolved in the postwar years, vending generally is conducted as a sort of concession, doing business on the premises of an organization whose primary purpose is something other than the provision of food and beverages. Americans who do not work in fairly large organizations, or attend college, have little opportunity to witness today's impressive array of food and beverage venders.
Another part is that vending has moved steadily toward the retail mainstream over the past three decades. This has made life easier for suppliers, virtually eliminating the need for vending-specific product formats. But it also has tended to make vended sales less visible.
At the same time, the retail mainstream has moved toward vending. Ours was the first retailing channel to offer single-portion items at any hour of the day or night. The social and economic forces that rewarded this service also spurred the evolution of convenience stores from small neighborhood markets where one could buy a quart of milk at ten o'clock at night into chains of 24-hour grab-and-go retailers, increasingly affiliated with filling stations.
And they're highly visible. Anyone producing a single-portion item can imagine it displayed on a rack in the local c-store. It is much more difficult for those who do not use vending machines frequently to envision it behind a glass front.
This presumably accounts for the press releases we get that describe a perfectly vendible item as "...ideal for your convenience store." It may be ideal for your vending machine, too; and someone at least thought operators might be interested in it, or they would not have sent us the release. But it does get annoying, over time.
Statistics published by the National Association of Convenience Stores show that, in 1999 (the last year for which we've seen figures), total sales through c-stores amounted to $234 billion. Of that total, $134.2 billion was represented by motor fuels, $86.2 billion by merchandise, and $13.6 billion by foodservice. The latter two categories are interesting.
Looking at comparable figures, the vending industry in 1999 sold $36.6 billion worth of merchandise. Since vending machines in the United States do not sell beer, staple grocery and household items, or automotive items like antifreeze and lubricants (at least, not in significant quantities), it seems as though a comparison between the sale of cold nonalcoholic beverages, candy and snacks would not show a great disparity. And contract vending and foodservice operations sold just under $9.3 billion worth of food through manual installations (cafeterias, speedlines and the like), and another $2.5 billion through refrigerated food machines. Again, the comparison is not much to our disadvantage.
In fact, the vending and convenience store industries both have been beneficiaries of the increasing mobility of Americans over the past four decades. Vendors think of c-stores as their competitors for the morning cup of coffee and snack, but may not consider the valuable role they have played in persuading the public that an individually-wrapped item, available when and where wanted, is worth a premium.
The real competition may be for the hearts and minds of product suppliers. The value of vending as a medium for introducing new products to a very wide range of adult consumers at low promotional expense is well-known to a few very large companies, and to a growing number of imaginative small ones. But there are large gaps, occupied by people who simply never think about vending.
Discussion of increased industry public relations efforts should include product suppliers in the target audience. They will benefit, and so will we.