Vending was a relatively easy business when I entered it nearly 37 years ago. Just place machines on location, purchase products, fill the machines, collect the cash and refill whatever had sold. Automatic Products' Candyshop, Snackshop and Pastryshop venders were the mainstays, and merchandising them was simple.
Remember, the glassfront snack machine was still in its infancy, not yet widely used in full-line operations. All that was needed for the dominant snack and confection venders was candy, crackers, and maybe a cookie and a chip. Of course, at that time we were not yet competing with convenience stores, and gas stations were just that, with bays to actually work on your car. How things have changed!
This leads me to a topic I consider vital to the industry today: public awareness of the dating of the products we present in our vending machines and micromarkets.
Years ago, the public was satisfied with the convenience of having soda, snacks, hot beverages and cigarettes available to them through vending machines. That's no longer the case. With the multitude of products we now merchandise, the industry must consider a direction for standardization or consistency when it comes to the dating of the products that we put in our vending machines and micromarkets.
We are all aware that mandatory disclosure of nutritional information for the products we are selling is imminent. And, with the birth of micromarkets, we face some additional complexities. This is where I believe the rubber meets the road for our industry.
We all grew up looking at the expiration date on milk cartons and a few other dairy products, but the demand for date or freshness coding pretty much stopped there.
Years ago, Anheuser-Busch came out with its "born on date" campaign, making consumers more aware of product dating and freshness. I believe that campaign expanded the need for freshness dating from just food products to all beverages. It certainly caught my eye, and made me question whether this really was going to be good for business and consumers, or was just an advertising campaign.
We are now in 2013 and consumers definitely are more aware of the dating of all products they purchase -- and thus have much higher expectations. In fact, I really cannot think of one item that we purchase for consumption today that does not have some sort of dating on the package.
So where do we, as an industry, go from here? I believe it is time we develop standard, consistent and reasonable dating practices for the labels on items that we sell in vending machines or micromarkets.
I recently had to deal with this issue when several patrons called to complain about the freshness of a snack in our micromarkets. They claimed that many of the items were past their expiration date.
I asked myself why we had not heard of this problem earlier, since we had been selling the same items in our vending machines for years. Of course, customers could not read the package dating before they purchased a product displayed "behind the glass" in a vending machine. The complaints were all from micromarket customers, who could touch and examine the product before they purchased it.
When I looked into the complaints, I found out that the dates those customers were seeing was the "date manufactured," not the expiration date. But it's the only date on the package, so it's reasonable for consumers to think it is the expiration date.
When I told the manufacturer about the problem, the rep told me that they had been dating their products this way for the past 70 years, and it was unlikely that they would change. I certainly don't agree with that thinking -- if I had not been willing to change over the past 37 years, I would not still be in business today!
Their explanation of the policy is that they need the date of manufacture on the package, so they can refer to it in case of a safety or quality concern. I am fine with that; but why could they not just code it on the package in another way, or change to a "best by" date and then, if necessary, work backward to see when it was produced?
To further complicate matters, when I did a bit more research, I found that their entire product line has different expiration dates, ranging anywhere from nine months to 2-1/2 years, depending on the item. I knew that this was going to be another issue in trying to educate my route drivers about which products fall into what expiration categories. Of course I don't want to be selling products past their expiration date, but I cannot afford to throw out product that is still good.
I told the manufacturer that I was very likely going to have to find a similar product from another supplier willing to understand today's consumers and their expectations. I don't believe for a minute that losing my business will make them change, but that is not the point. I believe that all manufacturers of goods for our industry need to standardize their date-coding practices, for our good and the good of our customers.
There is another important part of this dating equation that I feel is just as important, and that's how those expiration dates are expressly stated. There are real differences between the exact "expiration" versus a "best by" or "best enjoyed by" date.
I know that, in my household, if a product is past its "expiration" date, it probably will be discarded immediately. But if it's just past its "best by" or "best enjoyed by" date, it would not be considered bad, and very likely would be consumed.
This simple terminology change could make a huge financial difference to vending and micromarket operators by affecting the amount of product they are forced to throw away -- or, on the positive side, the amount of product that might still be sold if we knew it remained in date.
I can see this also saving us from bad press on the part of our customers. I am sure that, in their eyes, a product past the expiration date should no longer be available for sale. A product just past its "best by" or "best if enjoyed by" date may fall into that gray area or grace period where it should be removed soon, but is not yet perceived as stale.
So where do we go from here? I believe this might be a good subject for the National Automatic Merchandising Association to take a look at and see whether we can get all -- or most -- of our suppliers on the same page, so we can look unified as an industry in our customers' eyes.
JAMES F. BRINTON founded Evergreen Food Services (now Evergreen Vending) in 1976 while still in high school. He is president of this full-line vending company, operating more than 40 vending and OCS routes in Washington and Oregon. In 2009, he was a founder of Avanti Markets, and in late 2010 took over the controlling interest in the company, which he serves as CEO. He also established Avanti Markets Northwest, an operating firm that runs more than 225 micromarkets.