We all have been hearing a lot about the potential of new networked, always-on technology for increasing customer engagement with the vending, music and amusements industry. The opportunity for us, as for other retail businesses, is that today's smartphones and tablets know where their users are, and that information can be used by service providers in the "cloud" to point those users to nearby sources of things they want. This is done by tapping into the large databases assembled by search engines like Google and Bing. When someone is walking up the street, looking for a nearby pizzeria or shoe store, the phone can access a Web service to identify nearby purveyors of pies or pumps. And those shops can detect the approach of a potential customer and "push" an invitation to the prospect's phone.
I've been thinking about this because I recently retired my BlackBerry and joined the world of iPhone users. I prefer the BlackBerry's physical keyboard, but that phone does not have access to the extensive "ecosystem" of mediated online services offered by Apple, or by the Android world. Among these services is Apple's Siri, the "intelligent personal assistant" that allows me to look for information by speaking my question. The service uses speech recognition technology to understand the question, launches a search, and speaks the answer (if it finds one) using speech synthesis. Google has a similar service called Voice Search, and Microsoft has announced another, called Cortana.
Having heard a great deal about the marketing opportunities offered by this kind of thing, I decided to do an experiment. I asked Siri to find the nearest vending machine that sells Coke classic. Her response was, "I couldn't find any vending machine companies." Then I asked Siri to find the nearest jukebox location that I could visit to listen to some music, and she could do no more than direct me to the playlist on my iPhone.
The next Web search took me to the mytouchtunes.com website and the offer, "find your nearest TouchTunes digital jukebox" and to amibarlink.com, which invited me to "connect with your favorite jukebox."
Now that's better, I thought. But a further attempt to find any kind of jukebox led me to "jukebox for Spotify" and an app for "turning the iPhone into the best jukebox in the world." Definitely not what I was hoping to see.
I commend TouchTunes, and the AMI Entertainment Network, for having the foresight to create databases of their jukebox locations, and apps that give patrons incentives to visit them, and to engage with them even when they're not near a location. This convenience surely will spread to the merchandise vending segment, too, but that task is considerably more complex.
Jukebox manufacturers offer one kind of machine that sells one category of product, which they also deliver. It may permit karaoke, offer live concert screenings or music videos, even photobooth functionality, but all of those subcategories are managed over the network. The closest analogy on the vending side is a soft-drink bottling company. And, of course, jukeboxes other than the networked digital downloading models from AMI and TouchTunes are invisible to the Web.
The great challenge to the virtual world of the future, which we will view through our Google Glass "wearable tech" and see as "augmented reality" -- with the pizzerias and shoe stores identified by superimposed labels -- is that somebody has to find the retailers, create and post the labels, and keep it all updated. This was a problem for Yellow Pages commercial telephone directories, and it has not gone away. It gets more difficult if you want each of those icons linked to real-time menus that can tell you whether the shop whose image you're looking at can provide a vegan, or an anchovy, pizza.
I think our industry has a certain advantage here. Vending machines now can be purchased with, or in most cases upgraded to, touchscreen user interfaces and network connections to the "cloud." Companies like Vendors Exchange International have worked with suppliers to put their product information and ingredients into a database that can be accessed by a customer standing at a vending machine. The server knows where the machine is and, if it is to provide full benefit, also knows what is stocked in it and in what quantities. Operators now are using that information to schedule service and make up route orders; it could be made available to consumers, too. And if you can display it on a machine's video screen, you can send it to the customer's smartphone or smart watch, or whatever. You can also offer incentives for visiting the machine.
If Siri can tell me where to find the nearest convenience store, she should be able to tell me where to find the nearest vending machine selling something that I want. Here's an area in which our trade associations surely can help bring into being the infrastructure that will put this industry on the leading edge of the retail world.