Ever since the creation of the full-line vending industry and its dramatic growth four decades ago, thoughtful operators have been concerned about its surprisingly low visibility. A strong, positive public image for vending is a great help in setting out to sell quality and service, rather than price and commissions. It is a good defense against arbitrary assaults by lawmakers and regulators; democratic governments are administered by people adept at gauging the public mood. It assists operators (and others) to compete for qualified help in a very competitive jobs market, and is valuable when dealing with one's bank.
There always have been several obstacles to building the kind of public familiarity with and favor for vending that image-conscious operators always have desired. One is the challenge of building an identity when one does business on someone else's premises; there are no vending equivalents of McDonald's Golden Arches. Another is the fundamentally local and entrepreneurial nature of the industry, which has made it very difficult for anyone to become the sort of bellwether for vending that, say, IBM and Microsoft have become for data processing.
The National Automatic Merchandising Association is providing very good tools for operators to use in their communities, which is where favorable publicity is most likely to benefit them. While vending may not be highly visible on the national scene, many localities have one or several well-established vending companies that almost have become household names, and that enjoy great public respect. Building that kind of reputation involves not only doing a good job, as many operators do, but also telling the world about it. This is where NAMA's excellent media relations materials come in.
What's more, initiatives that worked in the past might be dusted off, updated and tried again. For example, a number of state and local vending associations organized "Vending Weeks" in the late 1960s and early '70s. In its most highly developed form, the "Vending Week" would be proclaimed by the chief executive of a state or a city, and operating companies arranged to set up displays of full-line vending equipment in bank lobbies and other public places. They also could theme promotional activities in their locations to the Vending Week. Of course, the news media were kept informed, and favorable publicity usually resulted.
It's not hard to understand why this practice fell from favor. It required a lot of heavy lifting, which cost money. It also involved the use of otherwise productive assets for something other than their primary purpose of generating immediate revenue. It always is difficult to place a precise value on public relations; there's usually no way to prove that a dollar earned today resulted from a PR effort last year.
However, we think there is a new need for such programs. In 1970, operators were dealing with a customer base that was unused to retail automation, and often was suspicious of it. Familiarizing Americans with the sophistication and convenience of the best contemporary vending machines was an important educational task.
And that task largely is complete. Today's consumer is comfortable with the application of robotics to retailing, and is very much in favor of it when it adds value by saving time and increasing access without sacrificing quality.
We must remember, however, that the majority of Americans have no regular contact with full-line vending. They are familiar with snack and cold drink equipment, but unless they are part of a large employee or student population, their exposure to state-of-the-art coffee and food machines is, at best, limited to trips to the airport or hospital visits.
These people are far more knowledgeable about technology than any previous generation. Their nostalgia no longer is for a vanished rural America, but rather for the neon, chromium and gadgetry of the 1950s. In our experience, they are fascinated by today's vending technology when they encounter it. If that fascination can be cultivated, increasingly widespread recognition of vending's potential almost certainly will suggest broader applications for it, and create a customer base presold on the benefits of those applications.
The vending industry still has a great story to tell; in fact, greater than ever. We must find ways to tell it.