The approach of the National Automatic Merchandising Association's 2003 Expo always is an occasion to pause for a moment and consider how the industry has fared over the past year.
Writing a year ago, we observed that the United States had responded well to the shock of the terrorist attacks of September, 2001, but that continuing uncertainty appeared to have suppressed the expected economic recovery. This remains true today, although there have been some recent signs of a change for the better - notably, an upturn in employment. Still, persistent weakness in the global economy seems likely to impair the kind of powerful resurgence that would be needed to restore confidence and get the industrialized nations back on a steady upward course.
Those with long memories note that breadlines are not forming, banks are not failing, and people generally seem to be coping. Demand for vending and coffee service remains strong, although the smaller workplace populations and more demanding work schedules that are strengthening this demand make it more difficult for operators to address it profitably. No one seems to think that the situation is going to get worse, and many report signs that things may be getting better.
Thus, the NAMA National Expo comes at an opportune time. It provides unmatched educational resources and a forum within which operators can exchange ideas, learn industry best practices, and get in-depth information about new products, technologies and concepts that can maximize sales while boosting productivity and cutting costs. Showgoers have the opportunity to learn about approaches developed by other industries to appeal to today's harried, value-conscious consumer, to hone their management skills, and to take courage from the continuing confidence that exhibitors show in the strength of the vending, foodservice and coffee service industry.
Attracting particular attention this year will be the question of the vending industry's responsibility to consumers in responding to an increase in overweight and obesity among Americans of all ages. Vending, singled out for abuse when the term "junk food" entered the lexicon almost three decades ago, has fared much better this time around. In fact, vending has been treated rather leniently by the critics, who have turned their heaviest artillery on the restaurant industry and on leading producers of beverages and snacks.
We think NAMA deserves much of the credit for this. The association responded to the initial attacks in the '70s by retaining a nutrition consultant, Dr. Fergus M. Clydesdale, who helped vendors grasp the outlines of the argument, and gave them facts with which to defend themselves. Armed with this new awareness, operators were able to expand their menus and address client requests for foods and snacks perceived as healthier.
NAMA never took its eye off the ball, but continued to back broad-based efforts to educate the populace about the importance of regular exercise, as well as diet, in staying healthy. Its current Knowledge Source consultant on nutrition, Ruth Lahmayer, has worked with vendors on recipe analysis and improvement for the past decade, and has spoken at NAMA educational events. The association thus has put our industry in a strong position to become part of the solution instead of being pilloried for provoking the problem. It is a change for the better, and we hope today's operators are duly grateful.
Operators attending this year's National Expo will have the opportunity to take part in other continuing conversations, from the wide-area networking of vending equipment to facilitate telemetry and cashless transaction processing to advance in management procedures to improve productivity and profits.
Over the course of years and of decades, the recurrent ability to engage in this ongoing industry dialogue is one of the most enduring benefits of attending industry conventions. The pioneers of these businesses began the discourse, more than half a century ago. Their wisdom has outlived most of them as the conversation continues. Anyone can contribute to it and everyone can learn from it. It is most audible at the National and Spring Expos, and is a compelling reason to attend.