One of the critical topics of the past decade and a half has been the "intelligent" machine. Vending has enjoyed steady progress in this regard, with equipment developing the ability to determine whether the selection has been dispensed, and if it hasn't, to take appropriate action. Today's machines also can record detailed information for automatic retrieval. Increasingly, they can respond to their environment, thus saving energy.
We think the time has come to expand the scope of this discussion. "Intelligent" machines cannot deliver their full benefit if they are not tended by alert, well-informed people. This is becoming recognized across a wide range of human activities, and vending certainly is one of them. For a quarter of a century, industry leaders have been emphasizing the need to "work smarter," and successful operators have been doing just that. The industry has seen a continual influx of new tools for tightening control, enhancing route productivity and maximizing customer satisfaction, and this seems likely to increase.
The challenge for operators is twofold. First, it's important to keep up with these developments, to weigh their costs against their anticipated benefits, and then to adopt them selectively. This industry has a good track record of doing that. However, the next step is more difficult. It requires recognizing when the collective impact of the new techniques and technologies requires rethinking the nature of the business, and making the necessary structural changes. Those changes will never alter the essential requirement of retailing - take care of the customer , but they will profoundly affect the context within which this is done.
Half a century ago, the principal difficulty for the young vending industry was that no one knew much about it. The primary role of vending trade associations was to defend operators against ill-considered confiscatory taxes and fees, and in general to explain the business to governments at all levels, to the media and to the general public. The associations always had an educational role, too, working to inform operators (and manufacturers and suppliers) on a broad range of subjects, from public relations through grass-roots lobbying to health and safety.
The National Automatic Merchandising Association has done all of those things consistently and well, and continues to do them. But it, too, has recognized the need to rethink the mission of a trade association, and its board has recognized that the industry's primary needs are educational.
Not only is continuing education essential for organizing an ever-growing torrent of information, but there is a growing requirement for a pool of eager youngsters who have grasped the opportunities offered by the robotic retailing revolution and whose educations have equipped them to hit the ground running when they begin their careers.
The NAMA Foundation and its historic pact with The School for Hospitality Business at Michigan State University, as well as stronger support for industry scholarship programs, have made a strong start. At the recent National Expo, the association accelerated on its new course with its "Endowing the Future" campaign. Its immediate goal is to raise $5 million, some of which will be devoted to the important "Balanced for Life" public information program. The remainder will go toward strengthening the industry's ties to the academic community, encouraging more educational institutions to include vending in their curricula.
The immediate benefits can be substantial, and the long-term potential is tremendous. To appreciate them, it's necessary to consider the likely cost of failure. Today's vending technology is versatile because it is modular and, like many other engineering disciplines, digitally controlled. No one can doubt that "intelligent" machines, retailing robots, will play a greater and greater role.
The question is whether this industry, with its vast experience in matching available equipment and products to very specific customer needs, will stay in the forefront of this development and reap the rewards.
We think it will, if operators heed the advice given in Proverbs (4:7), "Wisdom is the principal thing; Therefore get wisdom. And in all your getting, get understanding." Today, and certainly tomorrow, this means education. Endowing the future is a goal everyone can endorse.