Public perception, vending, vending machine, snack machines, vending business, vending routes, automatic retailing, coin-operated, coin-op, vending operator
We recently received an email from an operator who reported that the bank with which he does business had begun running advertisements with the message that saving can mean something more than buying lunch from the vending machine. He was, naturally enough, annoyed at having his profession treated with contempt by an organization that might be expected to show some respect for its clients.
Vending operators have grappled with the problem of public perception for at least half a century now, and we have made some progress. News reports of vending machine vandalism, for example, no longer are routinely played for laughs. And one might argue that the vending industry's difficulty with its public image is not nearly as severe as the challenge faced by financial services providers -- which is one reason that we might expect a bank to know how it feels to be slurred.
This tone-deafness seems to be another example of the gap that has been opening between means and objectives. If the objective is to sell a product or service, the means adopted really should exclude anything that offends one's prospective customers. This appears no longer to be generally understood, and banks are not the only culprits. A surprising amount of advertising these days seems designed to irritate the target audience to the point at which they will have to notice it, whether they want to or not. The pop-up ads that overlie the part of a website that you really want to see are a good example of this. Much excitement is being generated now by the prospect of extending this approach to the displays on mobile phones. We are quite unable to understand how anyone can believe that provoking bitter resentment in people is an effective way of persuading them to buy something.
We suspect that the bank whose advertising offended our reader simply never connected the idea of "vending" with a human activity in which some of its commercial customers engage. Of course, people involved in the day-to-day business of the bank know better, but they do not deal with the advertising. Those who do are free to regard "vending" simply as a symbol for "last resort," without any real-world referents at all.
During the formative years of the full-line industry, some perceptive operators endeavored to establish a distinct identity for vending. For example, they objected to coffee machine graphics showing china cups and silver tableware, because that was not the way the vender delivered the product. Their argument was that vending should not position itself as an alternate, less elegant source of beverages and food; to do so would be to establish a perception of vending as "nearly as good" or "better than nothing," rather than as a new retail channel that delivered desired products in a different way. They called incessantly for suppliers to take vending into account when designing new packages, to insure that the product would fit in a machine, and display its label legibly. Everyone saw the sense of this, and the suppliers usually listened.
We certainly agree with the industry analysts and critics who call for operators to identify themselves, first and foremost, as "retailers" rather than as service providers or distribution organizations. But we do think emphasis needs to be placed on "vending retailers."
For decades now, we have been extolling the movement of vending toward the retailing mainstream. Glassfront multiproduct venders equipped with multiprice payment systems allow operators to offer the assortment of candy, snacks and pastry that the public wants, with each selection priced appropriately. This would have been regarded as Utopian in 1970. Today's flexible, programmable cold drink machines, with closed or glass fronts, would have caused similar amazement. Not everyone makes use of all the capabilities of today's equipment, but those capabilities really are remarkable.
As vending has moved into the mainstream, penetrated the market and won widespread public acceptance, operators have lost their old sense of membership in an elite vanguard, bringing something new and wonderful into being and demonstrating its value to the world. This probably was inevitable, and it certainly signifies the progress this industry has made.
The downside is that providers of products and services are no longer called upon to regard "vending operators" as customers with particular needs; vending blends into the retail background. Large suppliers today often have streamlined their management in a way that increases the distance between the people who deal with vending operators and the people who make the marketing decisions. This can affect everything from the development of point-of-sale material to participation in trade shows.
While vending sales are no longer showing the steep rate of increase that turned the spotlight on us in the 1960s, industry sales are higher than they ever have been. Operators might do well to recreate some of the pioneering fervor of the people who set the industry on its present course. The squeaky wheel gets the grease, and we think it's time to start making some noise again.