A vending machine can be seen as a self-service dispenser of products or services. While it's usually more useful to restrict the term to a machine that delivers a product, it's worth keeping in mind that jukeboxes and games, coin-op washers and dryers, coin lockers, parking gates, pay telephones, automatic teller machines - and so on and on , also are "unattended points of sale."
The self-serve concept is being implemented in a growing range of devices. This is not a new trend; some self-serve appliances, such as coin-op shoe shine machines, hair dryers, television receivers and the like have been around for half a century. They come and go with opportunity and need.
The situation today is very favorable for new self-service developments. Microprocessors and single-chip computers are cheaper, more powerful and more versatile than ever before, simplifying the design of equipment of all kinds. Transaction recording and data capture in general have made great strides. The job market remains very tight, despite the present economic uncertainty, and businesses of all kinds are looking for ways to free their people from routine, time-consuming tasks. And breakthroughs in wide-area networks, most notably the Internet, finally make it possible to maintain tight control of widely dispersed devices in the field.
We bring this up because it raises a question that has arisen before, and has not yet been answered: is there not a role for today's vending industry in helping this self-service trend along, to its own great benefit?
Specifically, one can imagine a great many applications of conventional vending machines in helping retailers sell small items securely. High-value products like cigarettes and prepaid telephone cards, of course, are vended by operators acting in their traditional role as concessionaires; such items do not fit well into the inventory control systems of many retail establishments. But other items do fit, and the retailer already is handling them. They might be handled better by vending machines.
Over the past thirty years, several such concepts have found brief favor. Music stores began to sell prerecorded audio cassettes a quarter of a century ago, and quickly learned that these were very easy to pilfer. A few stores turned to candy machines for the solution , arguably a better solution than encasing the tape in a huge carrier that the cashier must unlock when the patron purchases it. And there have been persistent and varied rumors of self-service technology developments for fast-food restaurants, hardware stores and florists' shops, and many other retail outlets.
The need is there, and it is growing. We think it has remained unmet because the retailers confront a problem that they find difficult to solve. While a modern vending machine is easier to maintain, diagnose and repair than (say) an electromechanical coffee vender, it still requires a capable technician backed up by a well-organized parts department and an entire service infrastructure extending back through the distributor to the factory. The need to create the necessary support organization may not daunt a chain of supermarkets, but it is beyond the ability of the average retail establishment.
Is this not an opportunity for the vending operator? A vending machine adapted for such uses as selling compact audio discs or CDs in a drugstore, controlling access to office supplies or small parts in a commercial or industrial enterprise, or dispensing photographic film and batteries at a tourist attraction will have the same subassemblies as a conventional machine selling cold drinks, candy or snacks. There seems no reason why a capable operating company backed up by a strong distributor cannot provide such machines, with whatever minor modifications are needed to meet the specific retail need, on a lease basis with a service contract.
This could be a win-win situation for all parties. It could give local retailers a whole range of attractive options for 24-hour sale of popular items with excellent inventory control, and it would make the operator's service department a new profit center. It also might spur the development of new types of equipment, creating additional opportunities for the industry.
"Robotic retailing" is going to happen in any case. We think the vending industry can profit by saving everyone from the time and expense of reinventing the wheel.