If at first you don't succeed, take another look next month
In the history of invention, it has been common for someone to conceive a device or a process that can't quite be made to work quickly or reliably enough with the best technology available at the time. It often happens that, after materials and engineering skills have evolved, the plans are dusted off and commercialized successfully.
Lots of things that we take for granted were prototyped years, or decades, before a model was developed that could be implemented on a large scale for an eager market. The mobile telephone is one example; the jet engine is another.
This history serves as a reminder that, when considering a suggestion or a request, simply dismissing it with the objection "We tried that five years ago and it didn't work" can be much less useful than recalling why it didn't work then, and investigating whether it might work now.
In the past, nearly all vending technology evolution has taken place within the vending machine itself. Mechanical systems for validating coins and dispensing products were succeeded by electromechanical ones; timing controlled by gearmotor-driven camshafts gave way to integrated-circuit timers; microprocessors appeared; the "intelligence" formerly distributed between the payment system and the selection mechanism was consolidated on a controller board.
These advances required vending technicians to learn new skills; but, while they usually offered new features, operators didn't have to use those. Someone who had been running candy machines in which all the selections, or all the selections on one shelf, were priced alike could continue to price a new machine that way, simply disregarding the ability to price items individually. This had many disadvantages, but it simplified auditing.
It was easy to criticize operators for being set in their ways. But vending operators, unlike most other retailers, confront the need to keep track of transactions without certain knowledge of what has been sold. The inability of the machine to identify the item being vended has hindered the fullest possible use of location-level planogramming and other valuable applications for fast, accurate line-item sales reports.
Today, rigorous use of prepacked route orders based on forecasting and telemetry can go nearly all the way toward overcoming this problem. The missing link is a method for scanning all the items in the display after every vend. The time may come when single-serve packages are imprinted with RFID tags instead of, or in addition to, UPC barcodes. It may be possible to devise a low-cost imaging system that can record all the items in vend position on the machine's shelves after each purchase, and employ pattern recognition software to identify each; there have been some interesting experiments.
The point here is that all of these things are only practical when coupled with "intelligence" residing in a central location, outside of the machine itself. The alternative would be to maintain a huge, continually changing database in every machine and try to keep it up to date during route visits. This is possible, but hardly cost-effective or efficient.
In short, the next evolutionary step already has been taken. The availability of the Internet and economical wireless access to it has spurred the development of remote database services that can transmit product information and graphics to a vender's customer interface, process a cashless transaction, record every transaction and update the machine's and the warehouse's inventory records.
We have been struck by the enthusiasm expressed by vending operators for the new micromarkets they're installing. They are impressed by the ease of changing prices for time-of-day and other promotions, the speed with which the planogram for each individual market can be updated, new items can be introduced and sales can be tracked.
It is easy to forget that many of these capabilities have been available on top-of-the-line vending machines for decades -- and the manufacturers observed, sadly, that few operators actually were using them. Part of the reason was that lack of central control, and that problem now has been solved. But it's not easy to start doing things in a manner other than the one to which we're accustomed.
It may be time for operators impressed by their micromarkets' features to take a new look at those vending machines. The National Automatic Merchandising Association's new data integration standards make it practical to clear away many of the remaining barriers to vending's movement into the retailing mainstream.