Nearly 25% of visits to the Vending Times website are made with mobile devices. It's a good bet that in two or three years, a majority of our online audience will be mobile users and our website design is responding to that likelihood.
The same can be said for the latest vending machine designs and software development. According to Mondelez, by 2016, an estimated 67% of the global population will have a mobile phone and nearly half of the population will have smartphones. A mobile phone is the one device that people have with them at all times, and this is transforming consumer behavior.
Everyone is entranced by the idea of "engaging" customers -- whether that means inviting them to play a song on the jukebox at a local bar, persuading them to visit the breakroom more often or getting them to buy the latest product because its marketing program is so cool -- but there is little discussion of what happens next.
As you'll read in this issue, machine manufacturers have given us positive vend assurance systems, improved displays and illumination to present products to their best advantage, and payment systems that work reliably for whatever kind of transaction the patron wishes to make. The software developers have taken full advantage of today's very capable hardware to give operators the ability to determine exactly what is selling best in each location, to make sure the machines don't sell out of popular items and to alert the operator's service department if a malfunction occurs.
Where do we go from here? I think that product suppliers who are engaging, intriguing and amusing their present and prospective customers understand that this interaction is only one part of the puzzle. The other part is communicating with resellers, making them aware of new products and carefully designing comprehensive cross-channel marketing programs, well in advance, so that a product rollout in a particular area is fully supported by everyone who sells the supplier's brands.
This means, for example, getting the word out to the trade media at least six weeks ahead of a product introduction and/or promotion. Vending machines remain the best (and probably the least expensive) way to get trial for a new single-serve item, so the vend package is an ideal medium for coupons and notifications of contests and social media initiatives. Video graphics help, too.
Today's vending technology makes all sorts of in-location programs possible, ranging from "buy one, get one free"-type promotions to surprisingly detailed information about who is buying a product, and when. Suppliers would be well-advised to seek out imaginative operator partners, make sure they have the systems in place to carry the supplier's marketing message to the consumers standing in front of vending machines, and to collect information about customers that would be difficult or impossible to obtain in any other way.
I think it's also important for operators to be aware of all the possibilities here, encourage their suppliers to help explore them, and be receptive to ideas that can boost sales and make customers happier.
There are lots of interesting things that you can do if you enable people with mobile devices to use them for interaction with a vending machine, beyond just making payments with their phones. The latest "interactive" machines are designed to call attention to a brand, inspire "buzz" from people who are intrigued by it, and even recognize and respond to gestures by the customer. These capabilities have been memorably demonstrated in purpose-built promotional machines installed in high-traffic public locations to create product awareness and start conversations. This is having a very positive effect on the public's perception of vending.
In yesterday's high-volume workplaces, the cardinal rule was to enable customers to make their vending purchase quickly and then go somewhere to consume it, allowing the next patron to use the machine. It is one thing to attract a group of teenagers in a shopping mall by allowing them to use their phones to cause the vending machine in front of them (or a vending machine in another mall, surrounded by another group of teenagers) to do something neat. It is quite another to encourage regular vending patrons in an office building, a hospital, a factory or even a university to visit the machines more frequently, and tell others why they should visit the machines, too.
There are lots of ways that "intelligent vending" (as Intel calls it) might be used to do this, but they haven't received a lot of attention yet. I think they will.