BROISBRIAND, QC, Canada -- When Alexandre Vincent, 26, and Philippe Roy, 27, launched Groupe Ricochet Inc. four years ago, they made the decision to redefine the way bulk vending operators do business. Straight out of college with business degrees, the pair created a company more in the corporate mold than that of the customary startup street vending operation. The company is headquartered in Boisbriand, an off-island suburb of Montreal, in southwestern Quebec, Canada, on the north shore of the Rivière des Mille-Îles. It employs five people, including the two principals.
"We looked at what wasn't exploited enough," recalled Vincent. "You could go from one store to the next and see the same machines. We looked at racks or setups, and had no clue who operated them. There wasn't any identification or brand."
Vincent, who was a part-time operator of one four-head rack of machines while a student at HEC Montreal (an independent affiliated business school of the Université de Montréal), saw a perfect opportunity for improvement. Brand recognition, he thought, could boost an industry that traditionally relied on generic familiarity as its primary marketing tool. A branding effort that includes company logos and unique rack configurations could compete better in the retail and front-of-store marketplaces, appealing to more locations and attracting more vending customers.
Ricochet is not the first company to self-promote in this way, but it may be the first in recent years, or among the few, that recognizes branding as the foundation of its operating model. "We are very brand oriented and post the Ricochet logo everywhere we can," Vincent told VT. "We have uniforms for all route people and jackets when it's cold. They have to wear it -- it's our brand and people recognize it."
It was a simple idea. Get the company's name out there in the marketplace while building a reputation for quality. According to Vincent, the idea can be summed up by a common French expression. On peut parler de toi en bien, parler de toi en mal. L'important, c'est qu'on parle de toi! "It means that we can talk about you in a good way, we can talk about you in a bad way, the important thing is that you are talked about!"
This strategy, the French Canadian entrepreneur explained, was aimed at existing and potential locations, as well as consumers. "When you go into a Starbucks, you see the logo, and there's a certain feel in atmosphere that you're somewhere you know," he said. "Ricochet is striving to a similar brand experience -- something that is instantly recognizable from one location to another. We haven't fully achieved that goal. You need to have a lot of points of sale, but there is a clear difference between our racks and the setups by the competition."
The Ricochet look begins with custom cabinetry for both island and wall machine configurations that prominently display the Ricochet name. In one movie theater location, for instance, the operators wrapped a large, 20-foot-long vinyl wall banner with the Ricochet name and logo behind the machines.
At present, the operation serves some 200 locations in the Montreal area. Installations range from five-unit stands, which usually consist of Beaver Machine Corp.'s smaller Round Beaver or RB16s, to grander 30-head configurations, which employ large 26" high Northern Beavers, or NB26s and RB23s.
"Every location is different," Vincent said. "We have about 10 concepts we roll with, but we're still in the initial stages, and we're working to perfect a formula that accommodates any bulk vending location. We're still trying some different types of island kiosks, which allows us to push the limit with merchandise and design."
Ricochet, which started out placing bulk venders in small, independent locations, is now transitioning into larger locations, including chains. "You start with locations that allow you to build a portfolio, relationships and credibility, and then you expand from there," Vincent observed.
A Ricochet five-head rack typically offers toys for $2 or $1, stickers or tattoos for $1 and candy for 50¢. The majority of its business is vending $2 toys in 2.7" capsules, a price point American vendors envy.
Vincent and partner Roy said the past seven months were crucial for their company's pursuit of larger accounts. This is a strategy they hope to maintain in order to grow the business in the coming years.
"At the same time, we'll never neglect an account worth having, large or small," Vincent said. "We're young, creative and innovative. The most important thing to us is that we will innovate and create new things every chance we get. And people who partner with us should know we strive to do better."