It is well-known that the explosive growth of the vending industry in the late 1950s and most of the next decade was fueled by three developments. Hot and cold drinks prepared and sold by the cup -- the "wet mix" -- formed the high-profit core of vending in large workplaces. And the advent of practical fresh-food vending machines allowed vending operators to offer a complete refreshment and foodservice package that would be available around the clock, every day of the week. No rival service method could do all of those things.
Operators taking advantage of the opportunities presented by this new concept in the sunset days of America's postwar industrial economy recognized that they had to overcome two problems with customer perception. One was that buying things from a machine was not as pleasant as dealing with a human being, an attitude underpinned by the mid-20th Century anxieties about dehumanization, mechanization and the loss of community. Alert vending companies responded by doing all they could to train and empower route drivers, supervisors and technicians to serve as the human face of the business. They also developed location newsletters, conducted special events and otherwise strove to establish and reinforce a personality for the business.
The other problem, related to the first, was that people often had trouble believing that the items in vending machines really were fresh. This had less to do with the items than with ignorance of technology and operations. More than one operator found that showing people how the single-cup fresh-brew machine worked increased sales substantially: they simply did not believe that the coffee was "brewed fresh, one cup at a time" until they saw the process with their own eyes.
This was an even more vexing difficulty for operators of refrigerated food machines. Rigorous date-coding and frequent, highly visible service contended, not always successfully, against the perennial question, "Who knows how long that sandwich has been in the machine?"
We bring this up as an introduction to pointing out that people today have come to like dealing with machines, if they have found the machines reliable purveyors of good products. This is a relatively new phenomenon, and the National Automatic Merchandising Association is striving to reinforce it with its "Gratitude Tour," a road show designed to increase public awareness of today's remarkable vending technology. This, along with the "Vend.Love.Win" social network campaign, has the potential to revive the enthusiasm for vending that inspired the "Vending Weeks" staged by a number of state associations in the 1960s and '70s.
For everyone to obtain the full benefit of these initiatives, however, we think operators will do well to take another look at consumer quality perception; vended hot drinks and fresh food both offer great promise in this regard.
For one thing, we believe that the memory of the Coffee Development Group's Vending Task Force should be honored by reviving some of the consumer research and test programs that it pioneered. Not only did the VTF quantify and expand upon the industry's empirical wisdom, like the importance of showing customers how the machine works; it also validated and reinforced the real enthusiasm for good coffee that animated many operators. A number of intriguing projects were under way when the International Coffee Agreement expired without renewal in the late 1980s.
While the market for full-size coffee machines today has contracted, a condition we firmly believe to be temporary (after all, it has happened before), the latest models are remarkable pieces of engineering, capable of building repeat business and loyal customers. Vended coffee should be a prime beneficiary of today's new open-mindedness about vending. What's needed is a new commitment to promotion of the sort that supported the first single-cup machines and, later, premium coffee brewed from freshly ground beans.
The other candidate for renewed enthusiasm and promotion is commissary-prepared food. For more than four decades, operators seeking a competitive edge in their market areas have found that a first-rate foodservice program can enhance the company's appeal and public image. Some have built central kitchens as showplaces, with interior windows that allow visiting prospects to see the facility in action.
The expansion of commissaries into central kitchens was made necessary by the virtual absence of prewrapped sandwiches in the 1960s. Vending played a leading role in creating the demand for single-serve convenience items that suppliers have moved to meet. This offers operators a wider variety of tools, but has not decreased the publicity value of top-notch preparation of custom food.
We think that a new enthusiasm for communicating the unmatched virtues of vending is a necessary complement to new techniques for maximizing route efficiency and maximizing per-machine sales -- and, we hope, building better two-way communication with customers.