The National Automatic Merchandising Association's OneShow is a once-a-year opportunity to seek out answers to questions that gradually take shape about the roles that new concepts and new technology can play. This is one of the irreplaceable benefits provided by industry conventions, and its worth has been proven over time.
Industry advances appear to be made in fits and starts, because each innovation is followed by a period of assimilation. Nothing much may seem to be happening during those lulls, but in fact people who have overcome the initial challenge of getting the new thing to work often stand back, take a more informed look at it, think of ways to integrate it more fully into their operations and, finally, consider how that integration can change the way the operation is run. This process is aided by informed conversation, and a trade show is a uniquely favorable forum for that.
One topic that might repay investigation this year is "mobile payments." The idea of consumers using cellphones to make purchases has been around for quite a while, but the triumph of smartphones and growing consumer enthusiasm for convenient cashless payment has given it new momentum. At present, the term has expanded to include not only ways in which a customer can use a smart device to buy something, but also methods by which a seller can use a smart device to accept familiar credit and debit cards when making a sale. The smartphone as a medium for vending machine purchases has received considerable publicity, but its potential as a point-of-sale terminal deserves some industry discussion, too.
The ability of a smartphone to accommodate a card-reading accessory and software to permit cashless payment acceptance anywhere certainly has implications for office refreshment service route sales. For one thing, a driver with a phone now can collect from clients (especially those required to pay on delivery) without having to ask for a check or handle cash. If this method can free coffee service providers from the need to deal with accounts-payable administration, it might allow the provision of service to a very large base of smaller clients by reducing the cost of sales. This could be especially attractive to an OCS with "rolling store" distribution.
Accepting card payments with widely used smartphones also can simplify operation of gourmet coffee carts and portable kiosks in workplaces and public locations.
This capability obviously extends to vehicles. There has been some interest in making gourmet coffee available from branded trucks; the premium price commanded by upscale beverages makes a cashless option more attractive to patrons and more cost-effective for operators.
In fact, the whole mobile catering concept is worth a new look. Those specialty coffee vehicles, and the boutique lunch trucks pictured on newspaper "lifestyle" pages, are imaginative implementations of a proven food and refreshment delivery method that also benefits from today's technology. The ability of a mobile catering truck to provide food to small locations has been recognized for more than half a century. Today's management, communications and payment systems may renew a discussion that began in the early 1970s about the position of the catering truck on the workplace services spectrum.
Also worthy of exploration is the new circumstance that a large, and growing, consumer population now has extraordinarily powerful wireless networking capabilities. This drives today's mobile payment initiatives; we wonder whether it might not have other implications, as well.
Historically, the obstacle to cashless payments for vending purchases and remote monitoring, audit and inventory reporting was the expense of equipping the vender with wireless apparatus and subscribing to a broadband service to send and receive information. The emergence of a mass market for broadband connectivity has reduced cost and increased reliability, making the proposition increasingly attractive to vending operators.
We wonder whether those extraordinarily networked consumers may not have a role to play in the next steps. Consider a model in which the customer approaches a vending machine, sees a number to call or a QR code to scan and uses this to connect with a remote service. That service looks up the machine in a database and checks the user's credit, then sends an authorization back to the user's phone. Once that is done, the machine needs only the ability to receive a short-range signal enabling the vend, and to send a signal back to the phone when the vend is complete.
The signal sent by the machine will be relayed by the phone back to the cloud-based service that processes and records the transaction, and updates the machine's sales record in the database. We think it also could carry some audit and alarm data, and the host could send that to the operator's secure website. Small locations, which need "just-in-time" replenishment to be profitable, may be the greatest beneficiaries of this approach.
Of all the reasons for attending OneShow, its value as a unique source of answers surely ranks near the top.