Vending operators always have known that "there's nothing automatic about automatic retailing." During the modern full-line industry's formative years, operators devoted a great deal of effort to putting their machines in the context of organizations staffed by capable, responsive people who would work hard to keep the equipment running flawlessly, and would move swiftly to fix anything that went awry.
The current move toward integrating machines into networks was inspired, to a considerable extent, by operators' recognition that their traditional "silent salesmen" really don't sell -- they just fill orders. Until a machine is able to communicate with the customer and the main office, the best that can be hoped for is that it will be kept spotlessly clean, stocked with an ample supply of in-date products and maintained so that it delivers the correct product, nearly all the time.
Actually, that is quite a lot for a machine and a service organization to do. Technology can be applied to doing it even better, but will not help much if it is being done badly now. A well-thought-out system, in which the machines receive regular preventive maintenance, drivers clean and check them on every visit, and well-trained technicians respond quickly to driver reports of impending problems and customer complaints, will find it easy and rewarding to make the transition to remote monitoring, and to software tracking and analysis of service calls and parts usage.
However, those desirable technologies will not compensate for failures to communicate, lack of skill or deficient customer orientation. The same point has been made for decades about adding management information software: it's easiest to do when the manual system it is going to replace is intelligently designed and working smoothly, but difficult and often futile if implemented as a last resort to bring order out of chaos.
Given a capable service organization and modern equipment, a vending company today can almost eliminate the ancient problems of the most popular item selling out on Tuesday morning when the next route visit is scheduled for Wednesday afternoon, or -- perhaps worse -- a machine going out of service and staying that way until the next scheduled stop because no one in the location called it in. Between increasingly-accurate predictive software to forecast product depletion and the advent of remote monitoring systems that can report on machine inventories and send an alarm if the machine begins to malfunction, the operator not only can avoid losing sales and displeasing customers, but can improve those customers' perceptions of vending. As with all vending service since the dawn of time, the value added when customers are confident that they will find what they want in the vending machines, and that those machines will deliver it faithfully, is seen in higher sales, greater workforce participation and stronger customer loyalty.
We think this ancient truth must be the starting-point as the industry considers methods for applying communications and computer technology to the task of increasing customer "engagement." Operating companies have developed a number of techniques for doing this, and it seems to us that many of them could be translated into graphically enhanced digital formats without excessive difficulty.
Consider periodic customer surveys, for example. Alert operators have been conducting these for decades now, generally by distributing short questionnaires several times a year and sending a free candy bar to each customer who fills out and returns one. It ought to be feasible to offer patrons the option of answering five or six questions displayed on the touchscreen in return for a free or reduced-price item. We think it would be essential to give the patron an easy one-touch way to opt out of it and get on with the real purpose of the visit to the machine: to buy something.
We also think that an eye-level display could be put to good use by including an up-to-date notice explaining that "this machine is serviced by...," with a photo of the current route driver. That message could be interspersed with other material presented when the system is in attract mode, or it might pop up immediately after the customer has selected a product.
And there should be some way to use the touchscreen display on a machine to report a problem with an adjacent vender. This might involve touching a "radio button" to bring up a short form listing the machines in the vending area and click on the one that's malfunctioning. The network server would know what location (and what machine) was calling in. Ideally, the program would bring up a flag on the service manager's computer while sending an alarm to personnel in the field -- and would respond to the complainant by displaying a message stating that the call from location X about a problem with machine Y has been received, and a technician is being dispatched. Other approaches surely are possible, too.
The point is that this sort of customer-directed foundation is an important early step in realizing the potential of vending as the "machine-to-customer" marketing tool of the future that it certainly can be.