Operators are very familiar with vicious circles. Those who have been around for awhile are accustomed to finding an attractive product that would sell well in vending machines, if it were available in a suitable package and portion size – and to being told by the supplier that there is no reason to make it that way, because it isn’t sold in vending...
Fortunately, our industry increasingly is recognized as a desirable and accessible retailing channel by suppliers of appealing new products, many of which are relatively new ventures. Today’s snack, confection and food innovators seem to have much less difficulty imagining their creations on display in a vending machine than their predecessors did, three or four decades ago.
At the same time, however, we seem to be making much less headway with what may be the most vicious circle of all. It can be stated thus: many consumers are reluctant to pay the price for a premium product in a vending machine, if they think it probable that the machine will malfunction. However, confidence in the reliability of vending machines ultimately depends on operators restoring their profit margins, so they can hire well, train effectively and purchase newer equipment. To do that in a world of steadily decreasing account populations, each machine must persuade fewer prospects to pay higher prices for premium products.
The pioneers of vending industry public relations recognized that vending machines are perceived differently from diners and coffee shops. It long has been noted that someone who gets a cup of weak coffee in a diner may not go back, but will not conclude that all diners serve weak coffee. Unfortunately, this is not true of vending machines. A consumer who has a bad experience with an ancient location-owned countertop snack machine in a laundromat is very likely to make an unsound generalization that will discourage him or her from using a modern, well-maintained vender when he encounters one.
The best operations always have been run by people who recognize that one of the first things to do, and something to do consistently, is establish a distinct identity in their market areas – not only among prospective clients but universally. We have been in situations where average citizens have expressed admiration for a local operating company – sometimes one that doesn’t even service a location that they frequent. So it can be done.
That more operators haven’t done it does not mean that most are doing a poor job. Vending has been noteworthy for its strong technical skills and its underdeveloped merchandising aptitude. Many of the older generation of vendors seemed to pride themselves on keeping their machines in apple-pie order – and in not boasting about it! Unfortunately, the modern world does not reward that kind of modesty.
We don’t hear as much as we used to about preventive maintenance, well-thought-out procedures for responding promptly and effectively to out-of-service calls and patron complaints, and getting maximum customer-relations benefit from a swiftly effected repair. This largely is a tribute to the tremendous improvements in reliability brought about by the advances in engineering made over the past four decades. But it also may reflect (and/or contribute to) a lack of awareness on the part of some newer operators. People in this business often can’t quite imagine what vending sometimes looks like to those outside it.
A colleague, for example, has reported that several of her relatives work in places that have vending services. These are intelligent people, “knowledge workers” – and they are astonished and pleased to learn from our associate that vending machines now are available that can take corrective action when the delivery cycle fails. They wish the machines they use every day were fitted with something like that.
We don’t know for certain that the machines aren’t, and the customers never have had a reason to be aware of it. We don’t know that the locations are large enough to warrant new (or even “newer”) equipment, or the expense of retrofitting older models. But whatever the case, the operator has a problem and, most likely, doesn’t know it. Therefore, the industry has a problem.
It certainly is to be hoped that remote monitoring some day will make vender malfunctions a mere memory. Until then, operators need to take a close look at the relationship between confidence in the machines and sales volume.