One of the small vending operator's most valuable business tools may be one of the most overlooked. Even worse, the operator probably already owns it. That tool is the so-called "smartphone," a category of cellular telephone that includes Apple's iPhone as well as a host of other brands running on Google's Android platform. Widely viewed by the tech world as the most important technology to arrive on the scene in the last decade, smartphones have become ubiquitous, yet remain woefully underemployed by small business professionals.
That's not to say smartphones aren't appreciated. They are nothing if not snazzy. However, an informal survey of bulk vending operators suggests that the typical operator is barely scratching the surface of the devices' capabilities for helping to manage business. Many have limited their applications to basic phone service, texting, e-mail, surfing the Internet and storing family photos. Technologically speaking, this is very much like buying a Ferrari and using it exclusively for trips to the grocery store. The fact is that these little modern marvels, whether Apple- or Android-based, are pocket computers able to provide a wide range of functions that can directly impact the bottom line.
So, why are these pocket-size powerhouses so underused by bulk vending operators? The answers vary, though there are some common themes and misconceptions. Many of the operators in the bulk vending community, particularly those of a "certain age," are not as tech-savvy as they could be. Others make the mistake of judging their smartphone's business potential by its size. And not all the blame should be heaped on the operator; manufacturers of smartphones must bear their share of the blame. Most of the advertising that accompanies new phones and network plans not only features young, decidedly non-business people, but also applications focused on dating and social networking, rather than dollars and cents.
However, operators who ignore the potential business utility of smartphone computing do so at their own perils. Software developers are coming out with more and more applications geared specifically for small businesses, a trend that has not gone unnoticed by forward-thinking entrepreneurs.
"Increasingly, they are making use of the smartphones. There are more applications that exist for business and small business owners and more are coming out every day," said Brad Spirrison, whose websites, Appolicious.com and androidapps.com, offer hundreds of thousands of applications for the iPhone and Android-based smartphones.
"Last year, Google's Android platform had about 50,000 apps, and that's grown to more than 200,000," said Spirrison. "You can do a lot of business on a smartphone. There are tens of thousands of small business apps, and a large percentage of them are free. And the paid ones can go from 99¢ to $10. Some of the higher-level apps can be $30, but the vast majority are between free and 99¢."
GREAT AMERICAN INGENUITY
"Smartphones are invaluable," said Dave Siegel of Great American Vending (Hauppauge, NY). "We've issued all of our route personnel iPhones." Siegel added that the recipients welcomed the devices. Not only are they state-of-the-art, but they fit neatly in their pockets -- and eliminate the techno-clutter of carrying multiple devices in the field. Siegel also quickly found his iPhone to be an essential tool, as he added more and more apps for managing a route that extends from Boston to Maryland.
One of the most valuable business uses of the Apple smartphone, according to Siegel, is also one of the most basic: its camera and photo e-mailing capability. He has his routepeople take a picture of each location's bulk installation and email it back to the home office. "When I get these pictures, I'm able to see what's sold," he said. "I can see what condition the machines are in -- or if they're still there."
Another app Siegel provides his route people is GasBuddy, a free app that helps drivers find the cheapest gas in any area. Route personnel simply type in the city or zip code, and a map to the nearest, cheapest gas station appears. This application alone, Siegel claimed, can save thousands of dollars in a single month.
The standard apps Siegel provides his route personnel run the gamut from the traditional business to smartphone-specific. In addition to spreadsheets and forms that allow route personnel to enter collection data, he also employs Honk, which tracks the length of time a vehicle is parked in a metered space and records the location, as well as allowing the route driver to make notes on the parking space, and Find My iPhone, which allows him to track his drivers in real time with their GPS systems.
WHERE THE APPS ARE
One major hurdle that small business smartphone users have encountered is finding the right app at the right price for their businesses. With tens of thousands of business applications available, selecting the one best suited to a specific job can mean sorting through and testing dozens before hitting on the most efficient and reliable.
That's where Spirrison and his websites come in. He not only provides links and stories about what's new and improved, but also hosts open forums on which users can write about and rate apps they have tried themselves.
"Appolicious.com and androidapps.com are all about discovering apps," he explained. "Our approach is, you can read articles and reviews and compilations or you read our users' own list of apps. Any user can come and comment on the apps, or create a personal list of best apps by specific genre, including business."
YOU AIN'T SEEN NOTHING YET
For many in the bulk vending industry, smartphones represent an entirely new way of doing business. The portability of a tool that can accomplish increasingly complex tasks and the resulting in-the-field efficiencies are not just convenient. For operators like Siegel, they are quickly becoming necessary, helping to manage far-flung accounts and keep overhead down. This is a trend that shows no sign of slowing as portable devices become more sophisticated and powerful.
For example, during the recent Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Motorola rolled out the newest addition to its cellphone line with a unit called the Atrix. This Android-based device is so powerful that it's being credited with launching a new level of smartphones called superphones. What makes the Atrix unique is its dual-core nVidia Tegra processor that delivers 2GHz of processing power, and 1GB of RAM -- about twice as much memory as other smartphones -- plus up to 16GB of storage that can be expanded to 48GB with a 32GB MicroSD card. To put it another way, the Atrix is essentially a personal computer that fits in your pocket.
And it can become one, on a desk or in the field. At the machine's CES debut, Motorola showed two docking stations. One, with a full keyboard and screen, turns it into a desktop computer. The other converts it into laptop with an 11.6-in. display, a keyboard and an extra battery. The idea, Motorola explained, is to make the Atrix a person's principal computing device.
"We are finding that consumers are increasingly using smartphones as their primary digital screens," said Andrew Morley, vice-president of marketing for Motorola Mobility, EMARA (Europe, Mideast, Africa, Russia and Asia). "Motorola Atrix ushers in a new era in mobile computing, and has the power to deliver on its promise to empower individuals, as it comes loaded with the Motorola webtop application." This enables consumers to enhance the capabilities of their smartphones, he said, while reducing their need for additional mobile computing screens.
If Motorola is right, the future will include increasingly powerful portable devices. In bulk vending, the only question that remains is when operators are going to take that Ferrari out on the highway and see how well it can perform.