Every time the economy turns down, the workplace service industries confront a dilemma. Vending services are in great demand as an alternative to manual feeding when employee populations are pared down and subsidies shrink. Coffee service is recognized as a valuable and affordable employee benefit, as long as it doesn't cost too much.
These advantages often work against the industry's ongoing efforts to widen its patron appeal and address new market segments by highlighting quality, variety, novelty and 21st-Century technology. It could be argued that the vending industry's success in adapting to the transformation of the American workplace that took place during the 1970s and '80s, and the growth of coffee service to meet the needs of the many small locations that gained new prominence during that transformation reinforced our image as a durable and versatile source of low-cost refreshments. There certainly is nothing wrong with that. Meeting the needs of working people on budgets is an important contribution to national well-being, and always has been a valid source of pride.
At the same time, today's best vending and coffee service equipment also is uniquely able to provide a much wider range of items with high perceived value than ever before. The ability to make premium products available at any hour of the day or night, wherever people want them should open up a variety of lucrative new markets. During an economic boom, a few operators begin exploring these opportunities. Then the economy turns down, and the industry conforms by doing what it has learned how to do so well.
The strategic difficulty here is, perhaps, more pronounced for vending than for coffee service. OCS operators have a graded progression of equipment, product and service options, ranging from the small restaurant-derived pourover brewers that started the coffee service revolution to electronically-controlled thermal systems and single-cup fresh-brew machines. The typical coffee drinker knows something about coffee brewers, and recognizes the major differences among them.
Unfortunately, the typical vending patron knows nothing about vending machines. One might contend that this is as it should be, on the premise that a good vending machine is "transparent" to the user, as the software people say. However, more unfortunately, the typical decision-maker knows nothing about vending machines. It is difficult to evoke a vision of a space-age cybernetic marvel purveying upscale merchandise to discerning patrons when the individual on the other side of the desk is envisioning a couple of 20-year-old venders next to the boiler room. We think it can be done, but it's not easy.
However, it is important to keep trying. The belt-tightening now under way is, in many cases, being undertaken by perfectly sound businesses that are reacting prudently to the present uncertainty. Quite a few of those that have felt the need to reduce staffing levels have retained a substantial cadre, able not only to continue meeting their markets but positioned to expand smoothly when the economy turns up. Maintaining the morale of these cadres is important to them.
And today's commercial and industrial vending patrons are a more diverse group than ever before. Many are well-compensated for working long hours. Many have come here from other countries, and while acquiring American tastes, retain an understandable fondness for their old favorites. Quite a few of those favorites potentially have wide appeal to people who have not yet experienced them.
For decades, the vending industry has been cautioned about being regarded as the last-resort supplier whose equipment is patronized by people who have no practical alternative. Of course, that is the flip side of "24/7" availability and convenience. It may be premature to imagine a time when the typical American at work, unconstrained by time or finances, will pass up the opportunity to dine out and opt for lunch in the breakroom (although we don't think this is inconceivable, by any means). But it is not at all difficult to imagine ways in which the occasional vending patron will find pleasant surprises that will encourage repeat visits.
The boom of the '90s got vendors thinking about category management, and reinforced their perennial interest in attractive new items. The present circumstances call for even greater efforts to determine what people would purchase from vending machines if they could, and then provide it.