Shortly after VT acquired Vend magazine in 1971, we encountered an operator who asked whether the archives of that pioneering trade publication had come into our possession. If they had, he suggested, we should locate an editorial that appeared at some date in the remote past (something like April, 1958) and rerun it – without changing a word – in our next issue.
He predicted that, if we did that, no one would notice. The lamentable conditions deplored in the waning days of the Eisenhower administration had not, from the operator’s perspective, changed at all. Commissions still were too high, driven up by ignorant or unscrupulous competitors. Operating costs were rising faster than vend prices could be renegotiated, and equipment expense was increasing. It was getting harder to find locations, as the market had matured...
The point was well taken, and we don’t think it is unique to vending. To a certain extent, it’s still valid, although the dwindling of the old industrial-workplace sector and the increase in more upmarket sites with smaller populations has prompted some fundamental shifts.
We recalled that conversation when we recently pulled out a well-worn copy of VT’s December, 1985 edition, to look up some historical information. That was our 25th Anniversary Issue, and we offered the views of many industry leaders on what lay in store for the vending industry over the quarter-century ahead.
Predicting the future is difficult at the best of times, but some of our contributors did very well at it. One wrote, “On the exhibit floor at this year’s NAMA convention there were exhibits extolling the benefits of dollar bill acceptors and the like, to supplement coins and make buying from vending machines easier. The industry has to make up its mind about these systems, simply because the future depending on nickels, dimes and quarters is not very bright.”
That was a far-sighted observation at a time when the role of the new in-machine bill validators was still a vexed question. The industry did come to terms with the new technology, and its availability encouraged the development of new kinds of machine able to accommodate new merchandise formats. That writer also called for eliminating the dollar bill and replacing it with a circulating $1 coin.
Here’s another prediction, from a full-line vending pioneer:
“In the future, I see more impulse buying through the use of credit cards in vending machines. Dollar bill acceptors, likewise, will encourage impulse buying.”
Yet another: “We have today many more merchandising options at our disposal. Vending equipment that gives us the option of various cup sizes, more variety, more display area and more reliability becomes our merchandising tools. Have we experimented with and do we know the best combinations of these tools for increased per capita sales?”
Our overview of the impact of computers on vending (which had become ponderable, if not substantial, by 1985) quoted a leader from the earlier generation of industry trailblazers who had watched the full-line revolution occur around them. He had said, in 1971, “...new generations are growing up accustomed to purchasing a number of items from coin-operated machines... They do not consider it unusual to buy from vending machines, and therefore offer a large base of willing customers who are psychologically prepared to purchase even more items from vending machines, including high-ticket goods.”
Rereading these surprisingly accurate summations of the challenge and the potential response, we had a sense of what Yogi Berra famously called “déjà vu all over again.” If complaints about commission rates made in 1958 still resonated in 1971, then the sense that modern equipment has many underutilized or ignored merchandising features is as acute in 2005 as it was two decades ago. If the squeeze on profits was a cause for concern from the dawn to the twilight of the full-line transformation, it is equally true that the ability of our technology to sell a greater range of products to a potentially wider audience was perceived as keenly in 1985 as it is today. It might be useful to keep this in mind while touring the NAMA National Expo this month!