It often has been remarked that familiar things can take on a strange and wonderful appearance if we encounter them in an unexpected context in which we do not at first know what they are. This phenomenon underlies stories in which archaeologists of the future excavate a 20th-century motel and describe the artifacts they find, or explorers from another planet submit a report on their discoveries.
We bring this up because we don’t think the vending industry is getting full benefit from the remarkable technology that’s in everyday use. Industry trade shows generally attract media attention, and journalists naturally focus on novelties like iPod venders and hot dog machines. These devices are indeed promising, and point to new directions in which robotic retailing may go. But they stand out because people have not seen them before. The typical snack or drink machine is so much a part of the everyday background that no one notices it.
Imagine a time-warp enveloping an operator walking out of the National Automatic Merchandising Association trade show in Chicago in 1973, and depositing him at this year’s National Expo in St. Louis. He will have attended a panel discussion and round-table workshop on odd-cent pricing, in which his colleagues compared notes on the pros and cons of installing changers that could pay back pennies. This was thought important in 1973, because rampant inflation was making it necessary to increase vend prices. He will have seen a “vending machine monitoring system” concept in the Rowe International exhibit; it used a telephone line to send load level, functional status and audit information to the operating company for printout. (This was never brought to market, but was assembled to suggest the possibilities presented by integrated circuits. Our time-traveling operator’s reaction to it was, “Maybe my grandchildren will see something like this...”)
Walking through the 2008 Expo a quarter of a century later, the visitor from 1973 certainly would understand what he was looking at. He would be surprised to learn that people were using credit cards for purchases from doughnut shops, but would see immediately that people who do that are eager to use their cards in vending machines too, and if the vending machines allow them to do it, the odd-cent pricing question is answered definitively. He might be perplexed by the idea of a wireless data network, but would recognize its value in transmitting inventory and cash reports from the machine to the office.
He would find much to think about in positive vend assurance capability, changers that can pay back banknotes, and intelligent power controllers to reduce energy consumption (the Arab oil embargo had been declared a month before the 1973 NAMA show, and energy conservation was on everyone’s mind).
It is worthwhile to imagine this trip through time, because many of us actually have made it, though much more slowly – it took us 35 years! The industry today has extraordinary capabilities that would be astounding if they had been perfected overnight. We have become accustomed to them, though, and this familiarity has suppressed our excitement.
The point is that the general public has not become accustomed to them. People have no idea what goes on inside a vending machine. During the full-line vending revolution of the 1960s, state associations often organized “vending weeks” during which operators set up exhibits of vending equipment in venues like bank lobbies, handed out coffee and cold drinks, and showed off the inner workings of the latest models.
Over the ensuing half-century, more than one operator has reported taking a service call because the technician was working on the other side of town, arriving at the location, opening the machine, and being quietly surrounded by people interested in knowing what was inside. Alert vendors take advantage of this fascination by explaining and demonstrating the more impressive features, and emphasizing the importance of skilled professional service in getting full benefit from them.
Perhaps the time has come to revive the “Vending Week.” There is a public appetite for marvels, and today’s vending machines can cater to that appetite. More importantly, the exercise might reawaken operators to the remarkable business they are in.
We are continually being told that change has come. Who, we ask, knows more about change than vending operators?