A recurring complaint by vending industry observers is, and for decades has been, that operators are technically proficient and proud of offering excellent products and service - but they do not think like other retailers, and they do not merchandise nearly as effectively as they might.
This warning was sounded long before microelectronics breakthroughs brought new programmable capabilities like time-of-day discounting to vending machines. It dates back to the full-line revolution 40 years ago, when a few operators staged periodic customer appreciation days and theme promotions, but most did not.
There are a couple of facts bearing on the problem. The vending business always has lived or died on route productivity, and anything that slows the driver down on location thus is a thing that will be done, at best, infrequently. And the typical industrial workplace of yesteryear was organized in a very top-down, authoritarian way. Decision-makers were (perhaps excessively) concerned with decorum and maintaining discipline; or, as operators often phrased it, "They don't want me to turn the vending area into a circus." And, of course, there has been a long spell between the good old days of bagging by route and the brave new world of electronic audit and line-item sales tracking during which anything that involved changing the price of a vended item temporarily was deemed, by most operators under most circumstances, more trouble than it possibly could be worth.
It has been said that all generalizations are false (including that one), and everyone can think of a number of operators encountered over the years who have been tireless and talented retailers. They dressed location attendants up in costumes for "Theme Meals" in their vending/manual cafeterias in the '60s; they loaded poker-themed hot cups into their coffee machines in the '70s, made enthusiastic use of "winner" features and other sales aids in the '80s, and have used every advance in payment systems to spur sales, from multi-price changers to banknote validators that accept proprietary coupons. But they are the exception, the ones who stand out. They are admired for their ability to do several things at once.
There are those who believe that this situation will correct itself over time. As vending machine design evolves, many types of equipment are becoming more fun to use and to watch, without the operator doing much of anything except keep them "clean, filled and working" (a phrase coined by a pair of great pioneer vending merchandisers in Muncie, IN, four decades ago). As consumers make more use of noncash payment systems and express increased interest in the convenience and control it gives them, those systems will migrate to vending. This process already has begun. And suppliers are getting much better at conducting periodic on-package promotions that require the vendor to do little more than display some point-of-sale material.
While these developments surely will make it easier and, perhaps, even more pleasant to buy things from vending machines, they are unable to maximize the potential of today's robotic retailers. We think that, perhaps ironically, it takes people to do that.
A very good way to conduct a customer appreciation day in a large account, in 1972, was to send a supervisor or a customer service representative in with a pocketful of change, to stand in front of the coffee machine during the morning break and/or the lunch period to buy patrons a cup of coffee (free vend was not an option, for the truly committed, who wanted patrons always to associate monetary value with the delivery of the desired product). If that individual engaged in mildly goal-directed dialogue with people as he or she treated them to coffee, it could be even better.
The point is, this remains a very good way to conduct customer appreciation events, even today. Some operators have taken it as a starting-point and gone to their suppliers with a plan for combining brand awareness with customer appreciation. The patron is treated to a cup of coffee and receives a sample packet of cookies too.
Almost two decades ago, Alvin Toffler predicted that the future will belong to companies that combine "high tech" with "high touch." We think he was right, and we know it's being done today. But more operators need to start doing it.