On the eve of the last National Automatic Merchandising association National Expo of the 20th century, a moment's pause for reflection is appropriate. As with a birthday or New Year's Eve, there is not much difference between the day after a NAMA show ends and the day before it opened, but one has the feeling, nevertheless, of having passed another milestone. And each successive exposition provides a kind of summary of industry evolution since the first NAMA show, held in 1946.
In general, that evolution has moved through phases of diversification and specialization. In the immediate postwar years, the vending industry was largely a "street" business, based on all-mechanical candy, gum and nut machines (usually bulk loaded) or on cigarette venders and jukeboxes. Technologies developed during World War II held the promise of new kinds of vending machine, which emerged during the 1950s. Some visionaries imagined a future in which retail stores would replace most of their clerks with automatic product delivery systems.
Others, more immediately practical, saw the new equipment types as answers to the new need of heavy industry for ways to deal with the food and refreshment requirements of workers who no longer could go home for lunch, or get a sandwich across the street. The very successful use of coffee, cold drink, candy, cigarette and food machines to solve that problem created the full-line segment, which became the mainstream of vending for four decades. Successful full-line companies consolidated, used their strength to acquire complementary businesses like contract cafeteria operations, and sought other high-volume clients - colleges, hospitals , for their services.
Most also tried to continue serving lower-volume workplaces. Small-site coffee venders date back to the dawn of the full-line era, and a large number of ingenious dispensers for other products in office-type accounts were developed during the 1960s and early '70s. But operators , and everyone else , began experiencing the effects of cost inflation, which had a transforming effect on the entire economy in the ensuing decade.
The office coffee concept proved to be an effective response to the "marginalizing" of small accounts. It created an outpouring of entrepreneurial creativity that attracted talented people with sales experience from many fields, including other parts of the coffee business (among them the intriguing, but largely forgotten, "pre-brewed" segment). It also appealed to a number of vending operators.
Solid-state electronics made possible revolutions in computer design and telecommunications that touched off the economic revival of the 1980s and '90s. Among early breakthroughs was the video game, which created a whole new generation of specialist operators, just as the OCS concept had done. Both groups believed fervently in their new approaches; and both groups moved toward the mainstream industry when they found it necessary to appeal to wider audiences and to adapt to market needs.
The industry of the '60s sought to sell products to people at work, and recreational services to people at leisure. The industry today is striving to cope with a situation in which there are unprecedented numbers of people at work, and there is less and less unstructured time away from work. The old factory workforce today is giving way to a better compensated, less regimented, more diverse and sophisticated collection of "knowledge workers." Upscale employers running their own food and refreshment services are installing jukeboxes, pool tables, and video games in their lunchrooms, to keep those hard-to-replace employees happy on the job.
Today's vending and coffee service operator increasingly is able to sell quality products and services, rather than low prices or high commissions, by offering to help location management meet that challenge. The Internet is turning into a versatile medium for interacting with patrons, discovering their preferences and increasing the value of services rendered in response. It also can deliver entertainment. Merchandise vending machines, coin-operated games and jukeboxes may become intelligent networked terminals, meeting the away-from-home needs of a time-starved and mobile population wherever it may be.
This is something to ponder while visiting the exhibits.