The collocated Amusement Expo and National Bulk Vendors Association trade show and convention settled the point about bulk vending's current state once and for all. It's very much an industry in transition. Bigger and noisier than NBVA conventions, the combined coin-op show garnered high marks from operators both large and small, and especially from suppliers who exhibited.
This was to be expected. It's not much of a stretch to say the Las Vegas show's offerings, which included all manner of coin-operated devices, closely paralleled the typical bulk vending operator's own portfolio of equipment. Bulk operators were right at home with an exhibit that showcased skill cranes, prize merchandisers, ATMs and jukeboxes.
But is the dedicated, single-machine type bulk vending operator extinct? Those single-purpose operators still exist, just not in the same quantities as in decades past. And neither does it imply that traditional bulk vendors offering ball gum, capsule merchandise and flat vendibles are no longer viable. By all accounts, they are doing very well and will continue to do so far into the future.
So what has changed? Perhaps it's the operators themselves who have transformed. Seeking to maximize profits, block competition from long-held locations and build route density within existing spots, operators have been steadily investing in new types of equipment and carefully expanding their product portfolios. A decade or more in the making, this transformation reached a tipping point over the past few years.
A quick once-around of the show floor proved it possible to find longtime bulk vending operators seriously checking out the latest in amusement equipment. And more than one exhibitor was quick to point out that traditional bulk vending operators represent their company's fastest growing customer base in the past few years. This diversification seems to have been met with less resistance than the jump from 25¢ to 50¢ vending prices for premium merchandise that took place some years ago.
Is this significant? It very well might be. Operators not only acquire new categories of equipment when they take on skill cranes and merchandisers, they also acquire new skill sets. Merchandising and basic electronics repair are the most notable. It's not just their toolboxes that have expanded, but also their thinking.
Even more, they have somehow managed to overcome the sticker shock of the higher-priced equipment. These are no small things for an industry that has clung tightly to its traditional, low-cost venders for decades while excluding all other equipment types.
Less obvious is the steadily increasing confidence on the part of operators to place different types of equipment on location. If an operator can profitably place, merchandise and service a skill crane or prize vender, then he or she can pretty much handle whatever the industry throws at them. Will this newfound expertise and confidence translate into drawing new types of bulk vending equipment into the marketplace? Let's hope so. With bulk merchandise prices rising, the lack of a high-denomination circulating coin in the U.S. and debit card use dramatically increasing for all consumer purchases, the future seems rich with potential for new equipment concepts. As for the operators, they continue to prove themselves open to new ideas.