The colorful John J. ("Jimmy") Walker, who served as mayor of New York City on the eve of the Great Depression, was quoted as telling newspaper reporters investigating a scandal, "I don't care what you write about me, as long as you spell my name correctly." Mayor Walker was not the first nor the last to believe that any publicity is good publicity.
We thought of that viewpoint while reading news reports on the National Automatic Merchandising Association's Innovation Summit in Washington, DC. On the plus side, the event did receive positive coverage from the media. On the minus side, that coverage illustrated a perennial problem for the vending industry, and for many other human endeavors.
We've been very glad to see a change for the better in the coverage of vending over the past couple of decades. When the modern vending industry was new, it often was regarded with hostility. The machines seemed to be replacing warm human contact with cold, unreliable mechanism.
This, happily, is no longer the common view. Rather, vending machines have become familiar, even comfortable. Their occasional malfunctions often are mentioned indulgently, rather than with the air of sullen grievance so often exhibited in the 1960s.
The problem is that "news" implies novelty, as the word itself suggests. The old journalistic summary of this principle is, "Man bites dog: that's news." This, of course, simply recognizes that one must give people something that captures their imagination in order to sell newspapers.
The immediate practical application of all this is that a news organization, informed that there will be an exhibit of vending equipment nearby, will send a reporter who is looking for novelty. He or she may encounter a vending machine that makes orange juice by squeezing fresh oranges, or that offers a choice of breads and a choice of fillings, so the patron can assemble a custom sandwich; or a machine that cooks and serves hot dogs. Such innovations do make it easy to write a story that will interest the average reader, and such stories do no harm.
However, enthusiastic accounts of glittering new technologies can lead to unanticipated consequences. There is a tendency to recognize the benefits immediately, without concern for the costs. For example, the widespread belief that solar panels could replace fossil fuels easily led, first, to a vague but widespread suspicion that there had to be some sort of large-scale conspiracy in place, or these wonderful things would have solved all our problems. Only when people must look at specific, practical applications do they recognize the limitations and the costs. This certainly does not reflect unfavorably on solar panels, or any other workable new technology. It means only that the innovation must be considered in a real-world context – and the casual reader does not usually consider it that way.
Some years back, when pay telephones still were popular, we received a call from an aide to a state senator in New England. He explained that the lawmaker had been in an airport, had found himself without change for the payphone, noted that there was a dollar bill validator on a nearby cold drink machine, and wondered why it would not be possible to require the installation of bill validators on pay telephones.
At least he was sensible enough to recognize that there might be hidden complexities in that scheme. We explained what some of them would be: In short, if it would cost more to comply with such a rule than the telephone company could expect to earn from the phone, the phone simply would be removed. The aide understood this, and we heard no more about it.
Now, the advent of large, full-color, flat-panel touchscreen monitors on vending machines marks an important milestone, heralding entirely new business models and the closer involvement of vending with other retail automation disciplines. We live in exciting times. However, this is at present an expensive technology that, realistically, will be confined to high-traffic locations for some time to come.
But it's all too easy for someone who wants to compel vending operators to display detailed ingredient and nutrition content labels for every selection in a vending machine to say, "Well, now they can stop complaining about the intolerable increase in operating costs. All they need is one of these touchscreens."
Indeed, there are good programmable small touchscreen kits available that can do that, and they can increase sales by enhancing customer communications while establishing a competitive edge. But, realistically, there are a great many smaller locations that would drop from almost marginal to less than marginal if it became necessary to retrofit their equipment, and to keep the programming up to date.
It is a very good thing to create excitement about the potential of vending. It is every bit as desirable to explain the day-to-day realities of providing good service in a difficult market. Regrettably, the first task is easier than the second.