The future has a way of becoming the present at a rate of 60 seconds per minute, and this invariably affects the way we view new technology as it evolves from theory to practice. It seldom has precisely the impact that its early advocates foresee, but it often produces long-term effects that no one predicted. And it often finds its long-term application in conjunction with established technologies, as television did with motion pictures, or FM radio with recorded music.
The Internet is a good example. Much attention has been paid to its role in publicizing a business, and most operators by now have attended at least one seminar on designing a website. Early discussions of "business-to-business" applications tended to focus on the benefits of 24-hour worldwide access to product and ordering information. Given that focus, some operators argued that an operation serving a 25-mile radius did not need a presence on the World Wide Web. However, the reality is that more and more people looking for a local supplier turn immediately to the Internet to start their search. And e-mail can be a valuable aid to good client communications.
We have been most interested in the Internet as a universal data network with standard protocols and (relatively) convenient access at low cost. The lack of such a network has been an obstacle to remote vending machine monitoring and programming, and the Internet thus has opened up a very wide range of possibilities.
On the day-to-day operational level, it's worth noting that the advances in vending machine controller data capture capabilities, and in retrofit devices that add these capabilities for older machines, were inspired by the perceived need to automate data collection on the route by using handheld computers. It is apparent that remote monitoring complements this approach, rather than superseding it. Handheld computers give management a swift and reliable means of communicating load plans to drivers, and give drivers an equally efficient method for recording machine-specific information in the field and communicating it to management. Adding remote monitoring introduces a new dimension of responsiveness and control, and the network that has made this practical also can be used to upload information from handheld computers to a company's secure website.
It also is worth considering the potential role of this network in encouraging the adoption of automated order placement and processing. This was the objective of the "uniform communications code" initiative launched by the International Foodservice Manufacturers Association many years ago, and has been strongly advocated by large retailers who developed more or less proprietary systems for use in dealing with their suppliers. The appeal of "efficient customer response" should be evident in vending and coffee service, both of which move large quantities of date-coded items through their warehouses. Maximizing inventory turns not only holds down carrying costs, but also minimizes the expense of stales.
Operators are using new tools to do this in their warehouses and on their routes.The next step is to integrate them into the product distribution pipeline. As increasing numbers of attractive frozen and refrigerated items become available to vending, appropriate storage at all distribution echelons has become a critical factor. To insure the availability of the widest variety of products, operators must cooperate with distributors (and suppliers) to improve the accuracy of their forecasting, so orders can be placed well in advance of the need. This will be an important application of "e-commerce" in vending.
Finally, the Internet provides a useful tool for communicating new products and services to operators. In workplace services, as in other industries and "e-tailing" in general, it is best used in conjunction with trade show exhibits (people always will want to "kick the tires"), and with print media. It is not an accident that the most successful "e-tailers" have been companies already well established in catalog sales. As everyone who has tried it knows, the Internet is a convenient ordering tool that works best when purchasers already have decided what they want to buy. They make that decision on the basis of information that they find in a medium that they can access at any time, write on, and thumbtack to the wall: the printed page..