MIDDLETOWN, CT - What's a nice woman like Nancy Lucas doing in the fiercely competitive industry of bulk vending? Well, for one thing, she's doing just fine. An 11-year bulk vending veteran, Lucas has carved out a niche for herself among shopping malls throughout Connecticut and Massachusetts. Her company, The Smile Exchange LLC, based here, has garnered something of a reputation and a loyal following among mall management by offering a wide variety of equipment along with superior service.
However, the road to the mall wasn't an easy one, nor was it particularly direct. Starting in the business more than a decade ago with her husband, under the name Sweet Sensations, Lucas had a more typical range of locations that expanded well beyond shopping malls to include mom and pop as well as chain locations. Built up over the course of several years, the company's extensive route was assembled from scratch, one location at a time.
"We bought our first three spiral gumball machines from Global Gumball at a small business exposition," recalled Lucas. "I was na√Įve and didn't know better, so I grabbed a machine and put it in the passenger seat of my car. I'd walk into a Pizza Hut location or a diner or a grocery store and ask for a manager or owner of the business. Fortunately, I was lucky enough to have a few hits early on. They liked the machine and would say, 'You know what, normally we don't do this, but bring it in and we'll give it a try.'"
Spirals, of course, were still a novelty for locations and customers in the mid-1990s and were earning well above the standard bulk heads. Lucas, encouraged by a few early successes, began expanding the route with her husband who was working as an engineer. Cutting back on her own hours at a job in the IT department of a local bank, she slowly built up the route.
Malls were also a new location type in the 1990s and Lucas went after those while expanding her equipment line to include OK Manufacturing's "Gumball Coasters" and "Jumbo Giants," Creative Product's "Lollipop Mines," Theisen Vending Co.'s kiddie rides, Impulse Amusement's scales and CEI's sticker/tattoo machines as well as more traditional bulk venders, such as Beaver Machine Corp.'s line of "NBs," "SBs" and "BGBs," which she incorporated into her modular platform and candy cart configurations. Electronic bill changers were also added and proved themselves to be uniquely profitable for mall locations, Lucas said, increasing the cashbox as much as 15% when posted in a vending area.
As the route continued to flourish and expand with new locations, Lucas left the world of banking to focus solely on building the bulk vending business. And, by the time she and her husband divorced, the route was a thriving enterprise. Remaining partners in the business, the two ran it jointly for several years before dividing it up amicably. Lucas ended up with the mall locations by design. "Not only are they good locations, but they're more secure. It's a more controlled environment," she explained. "As a woman, operating solely, it's just safer. That's been a big factor, plus you'll never find the volume elsewhere that you'll find in a good mall location."
Not only do malls provide high traffic locations, they also provide the unique possibility to place a lot of machines in a relatively concentrated space. For Lucas, who services the route herself, this was a significant point. As a single operator, this means fewer stops on the route, less overhead and the ability to focus on quality service.
It also eases the way somewhat as one of bulk vending's few woman route drivers. She requires help only when moving equipment in and out of locations. After all, kiddie rides and candy carts don't exactly fit in the passenger seat of her mini van as easily as those first spiral machines. For these infrequent jobs, she rents a truck and calls in reinforcements. "I can manage a lot on my own, but if I'm setting up a platform of kiddie rides or a candy cart, then I hire a couple of male friends to help me out," she explained.
While Lucas credits her business acumen gained in the banking industry for her success in dealing with mall management, she has also seen the attitudes of malls change toward bulk vending over the past few years. Once completely closed to bulk, they began to open up to the industry in the mid-1990s. However, in recent years, as Lucas explained, they are taking a more conservative view of the industry. "It used to be just about anything went, if it had entertainment value and if it made money. You could bring them some ideas and they'd be receptive to bulk throughout the mall," she said. "Now they are getting away from that. Mall managers have started naming specific areas they want to have vending in. Whether they find it isn't profitable and in time they'll go back to opening up some of the other areas to vending isn't clear yet."
And, while never open to "traditional" bulk racks, malls are now trending toward even more unique and upscale looks when it comes to the presentation aspects of the machines. To meet these management requirements, Lucas has an original design of her own to accommodate mall locations. Collaborating with local designers and cabinetmakers, she's come up with an attractive and very compact cart that measures a mere 4 ft. wide by 6 ft. long and 7 ft. high. Its carefully thought-out proprietary design includes a candy shoppe motif, curio displays and veneers with countertops that can be customized to match the location's color d√©cor. It holds 16 Beaver bulk heads (three "NBs," 12 "RBs" and a single "Flat-Pak") and provides plenty of storage space underneath. While the new cart is limited to her own route at the present time, Lucas has expressed interest in marketing the cabinet in the future.
Although still relatively small, Lucas is currently taking an attitude of cautious growth. Proudly describing herself as a "one woman show, who totally enjoys her job," she doesn't want to expand the route beyond her ability to maintain the level of high quality service that has won and kept her in mall locations.