As a very smart man once said: "My interest is in the future because I am going to spend the rest of my life there." It's a cute saying, but it ultimately rings true. Equally true is the fact that the future is pretty much upon us in bulk vending. That is to say, a significant percent of this industry's customers was born in the 21st century.
This is a bottom-line reality that holds enormous impact for the industry. Consider that most of these kid customers don't remember a time before there was access to the Internet, 100-plus channels of television and cellphones. And there's a good chance they have never placed a phonograph needle onto a vinyl LP, or even owned music sold and stored on a solid medium, such as a CD.
There are, naturally, a thousand other examples of what this key demographic has and has not been exposed to in their daily lives when it comes to new and old technology. But nothing comes as close to exemplifying their worldviews as that familiar phrase, "at the push of a button."
For us "oldsters," pushing a button was actually a sign of effortlessness. That famous cartoon family, The Jetsons, pushed buttons for everything in their future world. However, for young kids today, button pushing is actually seen for what it is: a 19th century interface medium. For them, buttons are not "easy" or high-tech. If they thought of the interface between technology and person at all, they would probably say capacitive screens, like those used on iPhones, were superior to mechanical push buttons.
It is easy for those of us not born and raised in the 21st century to casually discount the impact of technology on young consumers. MP3 players, cable television, cellphones, the Internet and all the other nifty gadgets and gizmos introduced over the past two decades are conveniences to the older generation. Granted, some of them have progressed from novelty to convenience items, and have become essential tools for business and personal life.
However, for the Millennium Kids, those same gadgets have played a central role in shaping everything from expectations to attention spans. And, by extension, the value they attributed to bulk products. That is to say, such core product issues as perceived value and playability – that make up that ever-elusive and non-quantifiable fun quotient – are no doubt influenced by an environment jam-packed with electronic conveniences delivering all manner of information.
All this is not necessarily bad news. The bulk vending industry is adaptable, and there are already signs that it's reacting to the new generation of consumers. Smart operators have reported the necessity of frequent product rotation for a few years now. It is logical to conclude they are reacting to a customer base with a shortening attention span and endless appetite for "newness." And, too, better-quality and better-designed products are probably also part of this 21st century phenomenon.
Where all this will lead is anyone's guess. However, there is plenty of precedent for the adaptability of bulk vending. Several years ago, when stickers and then tattoos grew in popularity, bulk vending underwent a major transformation as flat vendibles moved from a cyclical industry niche to the mainstream. Even as new machines and products flooded the industry, some of the venerable suppliers in that market segment vanished.
Now, a decade later, the industry might just be in for the same kind of transformation.