On the arrival of a new year, it's customary to spend a few moments considering the past and the future. With the current concern and ongoing discussion about the latter topic, it may be helpful to look at a principle that has been at work during most of recent history.
We might start by recalling humorist Robert Benchley's observation that there are two sorts of people: those who do, and those who do not, believe that there are two sorts of people. There is a natural human tendency to make this kind of division; to say that, in the troubled times ahead, operators who transform their companies in one way will succeed, while those who don't will fail. There will be sheep, and there will be goats.
We have heard this sort of thing about once every five years since the1960s, and more often than not, there is a sense in which it's true. Changing conditions require adjustments to mainstream methods of doing things, and new technology can make the adjustment easier.
The transition from collecting and bagging "by route" to "by location" to "by machine" is an example. Each involved more work and new procedures, but tightened control to adapt to the evolution of the social climate.
Similarly, the move to multi-pricing reflected changes in product availability and product preference, and required the installation of coin changers. Fifteen years later, the same forces dictated equipping some machines with bill validators - which had been prototyped a decade earlier, before there was a real need for them.
Shifting trends in product preference also interact with technology, in unpredictable ways. Glassfront display, and the spiral vending mechanism, had been around in specialized applications for years. It took a shift in consumer preference from candy to bagged snacks, and demand for ever-wider variety, for these principles to be combined in today's versatile multiproduct designs.
Vending history is full of this kind of transition, and it is true that those who make it survive, while most of those who don't will fail. It's always possible for a very small operation, run by one person, to find a niche for any kind of service that he or she wants to provide. But companies that want to grow must come to terms with the market.
Deciding when to make such a change, and how best to make it, often can be done within a rather tolerant time window. But the decision will be made sooner or later; and it will be the decision to adapt or exit the business. Often, an improvement comes to market that persuades alert operators that they now can do something they have known must be done. For many, early business computers and accounting software encouraged them to complete the transition to bagging by machine, and to designing procedures for cash-to-product reconciliation. For some, handheld computers now are playing a similar role in expediting the adoption of line-item sales tracking.
At most points along the timeline of such a shift, it is possible to argue whether the benefits really outweigh the costs. Often, there can be different answers, depending on the kind of operation and the interests of its owner.
We point this out because operators today are looking at a variety of promising new concepts whose emergence is related to real market forces. These include, but are not limited to, the dual capabilities of remote inventory/status monitoring and cashless transaction validation offered by today's communications devices. These steadily are becoming more reliable, versatile and economical, and tests are determining the best uses for them.
We think that the economy will be recovering when fall arrives in 2003, and we believe that operators will begin operational deployment of many of the new things introduced over the past decade.
However, we must emphasize that no technology offers benefits that outweigh excellent service. A company that fields good equipment and maintains it well, that knows its customers and their preferences, and that develops a reputation for quality, reliability and honesty usually can set its own timetable for adopting something new and learning how best to use it. But a business that has failed its customers cannot be saved by a crash program, however innovative.