To quote the playwright, actor and songwriter, producer and director Noel Coward, "People are wrong when they say opera is not what it used to be. It is what it used to be. That is what's wrong with it." The same could be said for bulk vending, and not just because I enjoy the odd pairing of bulk vending with the elegance and genius of Coward.
The truth of the matter is that bulk vending has changed very little in the past half-century. That is both its greatest strength and weakness. That is not to say there haven't been any changes. Product has certainly changed a great deal, and so have the price points. However, the fundamentals have pretty much stayed the same.
Let's begin with the strengths. At heart, bulk vending is still a mom-and-pop business working with other mom-and-pop businesses. Even as supersize operating companies gained traction during the 1990s by gobbling up midsize companies, small bulk vending operators continued to more or less prosper. Today, those companies, consisting of anywhere from 50 to 1,000 locations, continue to flourish. Operating largely below the radar, their owners run the gamut from young entrepreneurs seeking a financial foothold in an increasingly difficult economy to retirees subsidizing fixed incomes.
In truth, nobody knows how many of these small operators exist out there in the wild. I've heard estimates that range from 10,000 to 50,000 or more. However, it is possible to see their locations in every corner of the country. Their machines can be found in small grocery stores, coin laundries, liquor stores, municipal buildings and even taverns. They are the operators who know the account managers and owners by their first names, and more than likely shop in many of the same stores in which their machines are located. And while they may buy their product by the box and not the pallet, they remain the backbone of the industry.
On the flip side, these small operators tend not to be early adopters of new equipment or product. For better or for worse, over the past decade or so, it was either the large mega-operators or newcomers to the industry that drove pricing and product innovation. Those companies with deep pockets were simply in a better position to afford the risk along with the potential losses that almost always accompany innovation.
All of this begs the question: Will small bulk vending operators eventually step up and take the lead when it comes to being innovators in the industry? That not only means trying new products, machines and locations, but also providing the kind of steady feedback stream suppliers can put to use in creating better products and equipment. It also means taking an active role in the NBVA in helping the industry navigate the treacherous waters of regulation and tax relief.
Whether they take the lead or not remains uncertain. And there are many in the industry who believe them too diverse and disorganized a group. However, in the words of the late Texas sportscaster, Dan John Cook Jr., who was apparently even less a fan of opera than Noel Coward, "It ain't over ‘til the fat lady sings."