U.S.A. - The economic recovery that seems to be gathering force can be expected to increase operators' demand for vending equipment, as workforces gradually are brought back up to strength and the pace of commercial development picks up.
The choices are varied, but most are characterized by technology that's new enough to be appealing to patrons and beneficial to vendors, but not so new as to be untried. Many of the advances that would by now have achieved widespread deployment have been, in large part, put on hold by the economic slowdown. But they have been available, they have been used and discussed, and they are no longer unknown quantities.
Increasingly, vending machines are becoming collections of functional modules flexibly linked by powerful, versatile control electronics. This is a trend of long standing, having begun with locks and coin mechanisms in the'60s. In some designs, the controller itself is interchangeable among complementary machines, with the operator able to choose whether to configure one or the other as a stand-alone vender (even if it's in a bank), or as a satellite display and dispensing module controlled by the adjacent machine.
As long as vending transactions are predominantly cash-based, this architecture seems effectively limited to two adjacent machines. In that role, though, it can be a real convenience to patrons and a vehicle for operators to offer incentives for multiple purchases, like a cup of coffee and a premium pastry.
Food machines attracted much interest during 2003, and that interest has rolled forward into the new year. Despite the slow economy, several novel designs for specialty foods were introduced.
Similarly, recognition of the merchandising power of glassfront cold drink venders spurred continuing development of glassfront cold beverage machines. Success of contemporary milk-based drinks in new widemouth "plastic pint" packaging, and the acceptance of milk as an alternative beverage, encouraged manufacturers to supply their new glassfront machines with health shutoff switches, allowing the equipment to bridge the historic gap between "food" (anything perishable, requiring protection in the warehouse and on the route) and all other vendible products.
This is the latest manifestation of a historic shift in vending. Until quite recently, a vendible product category usually was defined by the kind of machine through which it was sold. The increase in equipment versatility and flexibility , variable-temperature venders that can sell refrigerated or frozen food and, if frozen, either mainmeal items or ice cream novelties, or both, and combination venders of many kinds , has pointed up the need for improved methods of keeping track of what, exactly, is being sold through each machine.
Still, as a practical matter, the equipment mix at the end of 2003 did not differ much from that a year earlier. However, that is a year's additional experience on the part of the service echelon, and a year of study and judgement by operators. This greater depth of experience also seems to be smoothing the way for swifter upgrade to uniform automated data collection and retrieval with "DEX" technology, and it seems very likely that the economic recovery will spur this process.
Vending also increasingly is perceived by suppliers as an attractive medium for gaining wide exposure and fast trial of new products. What has been missing is a way to quantify these desirable things, and automated data collection promises to resolve this difficulty.
Again, the activity appears to be taking place on the periphery, or among the peripherals. From "curbside" polling of machines on location through radio-frequency modems on route trucks, for faster delivery times, to timed-release odors designed to spur sales, many concepts that have been around for decades are becoming easier to implement, and often more attractive to operators and suppliers alike.In summary, 2003 was a year in which nothing much appeared to happen on the technical front, but that appearance is deceiving. Technology must be accepted before it can be successful, however good it may be. Last year convinced many observers that they need better information and higher efficiency. This may be the year during which they set out to get those desirable things.