WILLISTON, SC -- Crane Merchandising Systems took the wraps off its high-tech Media series last spring, charting a new course in machine design with a fully integrated solution that centers the shopping experience around the consumer. With several thousand units in the field, the vending machine manufacturer says it's continuing to build upon the "future-proof" platform with new features and enhancements that rolled out this spring.
Media's futuristic design and dynamic user interface deliver consumers a shopping experience in line with what's familiar to them in other retail channels. This ultimately drives up same-location sales, according to Crane Merchandising Systems, which is the vending and payment business unit of Crane Co. (Stamford, CT). The platform's all-in-one, plug-and-play design aims to improve operator efficiency and profitability by integrating state-of-the-art front- and backend technologies. These include payment devices, vending management software, wireless communication technology and cashless management solutions. The next-generation machines also offer operators the flexibility to pick and choose the peripherals that best suit their needs and add new ones as those needs change.
"Bringing the latest technology to existing machines can improve the experience, but the difference with Media is that everything is integrated in one solution," said Crane Merchandising Systems innovation director Ignacio Santa Cruz. "This gives the operator the opportunity to do the best job possible of changing the experience for the consumer by making it easier to shop, to buy multiple products, to access nutrition information and to pay.
"Vending has needed to elevate itself in order to compete and remain relevant, introducing machines that excite and grab consumers' attention, engage to keep their attention and impress to encourage future purchases," Santa Cruz explained, and the Media design was conceived with this object in view. The ultramodern line includes the Merchant Media, which is available in both ambient-temperature and refrigerated models for merchandising snacks, cold drinks and food. It's also designed with larger shelfspace than most vending machines, maximizing product variety and capacity and reducing lost sales due to sell-outs.
Crane's BevMax cold beverage machine also will be available on the Media platform. And the new Voce hot beverage vender, now available in the United Kingdom, is slated for North American launch later this year. Its interface has been designed to complement Media machines in a bank, offering a consistent look and feel.
Another important Media feature is that all the machines built for the Media platform comply with new Americans with Disabilities Act requirements, with a raised delivery bin and easy-to-reach payment system to more comfortably accommodate consumers in wheelchairs. "Not all locations require changes to equipment yet, but they're becoming more and more aware," said Santa Cruz. "Customers also like that they don't have to fish in the bucket to get their product from a Media machine; we're getting a lot of compliments." As the delivery door opens, a baffle swings up to block access to the vending compartment and the floor of the bin rises to present the product for easy retrieval, without the need to insert one's hand completely into the bin. "They like that the product is right there, which is a positive change to the vending experience," the Crane executive reported.
PLUG AND PLAY
Media's flexibly inclusive design and high-tech approach to automated retailing are fueling demand from operators from coast to coast, according to Crane. Among them is New York City-based Intelligent Foods on Demand, which currently has some three dozen Merchant Media and BevMax Media machines deployed throughout the city.
PHOTO: Crane’s Media Series offers Currenza cash and credit (left) acceptance, and screens (right) for nutritional data and promotions. Below is Media’s ADA-compliant product bin. Together, Media features create a compelling vending experience.
The company told VT that it had invested in wireless monitoring, cashless payment and other technologies before discovering the Media machine at last spring's NAMA show."We were piecemealing the products and services with our equipment to accommodate our needs," said Intelligent Foods on Demand's Stan Rubinov, one of the company's managing partners. "But with Media, everything comes packaged in one entity, allowing us to accept credit cards and track everything remotely without third-party devices; it's just a lot easier. We can now deal with Crane and get all of the information and services we need from one company. Technology-wise, it's like a one-stop shop. Plus, the overall aesthetic of the machine is in line with our futuristic, high-tech approach."
One of the key features central to the user experience that's set for official rollout at the NAMA OneShow is Media's 7" vertical full-color touchscreen user interface. Crane previewed this device when it launched the series at last year's OneShow, and it has been under extensive field test ever since. Operators also can opt for a smaller horizontal color LCD screen that prompts the patron to use an adjacent keypad, which has been available since the machine's launch.
Both interface formats put a contemporary spin on the vending shopping experience by allowing patrons to select any number of items in a single transaction by adding them to an onscreen "shopping cart," a familiar e-commerce icon. New software enables patrons to "browse" products by category -- such as gluten-free, low-calorie, vegetarian or organic -- prior to purchase. Patrons also have the option to "buy more" -- a powerful selling tool that helps drive multiple product purchases -- at any time before completing the transaction. They can also cancel the purchase at any time. On-screen instructions guide the user every step of the way, and payment can be inserted before or after making a selection.
Intelligent Foods On Demand's managing partner Phillip Kaplan told VT that the company has received a stream of positive feedback about the Media machines from the company's sophisticated Big Apple customers. "They are really loving the way the machines look and the way they work, and we're finding that people really like to use these machines," he commented. "A lot of our clients are high-end, health-conscious establishments where people like to know as much about the product as possible, and to see the caloric count before purchasing. Media gives people the capability to browse by different categories and search for products they actually want, like gluten-free or low-calorie products. It also has a shopping cart capability that people know and understand from online shopping."
Crane's Media machines come standard with an integrated payment system that connects directly to the screen. It can be configured to permit cashless or conventional bill and coin acceptance, or any combination of the three, and has capabilities built in for future adoption of mobile wallet purchases. The Media system can also accommodate payment devices from competing manufacturers.
"There are other touchscreen devices on the market from other manufacturers, but Media's integrates into the whole experience," Santa Cruz explained. "It's one consistent experience and purchase activity that you use to select a product and get nutritional information, and it walks you through the whole payment process.
"If you look at a typical vending machine and add credit cards, you have two screens and two keypads, and it can be intimidating to the customer: what to do next?" Santa Cruz observed." With an integrated payment interface, it's more intuitive and compelling, making it easy to step up and pay." Onscreen advertisements and promotions shown on the high-impact, interactive color display help drive impulse purchases, encourage multiple sales and build brand loyalty. Crane is still developing marketing content and a platform for large-scale use.
Santa Cruz told VT that Crane has been measuring the performance of Media machines on field test to gauge the benefits of its touchscreen, onscreen advertising and shopping cart features, and has found that all of them drive sales. "The shopping cart, which makes it easy to buy multiple products with a single swipe, is very intuitive," he reported. "That feature, combined with cashless payment or note recyclers, has driven the biggest lift in same-store sales."
BUILD AS YOU GO
While Media's claim to fame is its ability to deliver a fully-integrated high-tech solution out of the box, it also gives operators the flexibility to take a step-by-step approach to implementing advanced technology. Media can be ordered in a base model -- without the wireless transceiver, touchscreen display and cashless technology -- and operators can add whatever enhancements they require over time to meet the evolving needs of their customers. The telemetry device is built in, and simply adding the radio allows operators to choose wireless service from AT&T, Sprint or Verizon Wireless.
"It's a very modular solution compared with the all-in-one screens, card readers and telemetry devices of many competing systems," Santa Cruz told VT. "We took another direction. Some of our customers won't want to use the screen, for example, especially in a location that's vandalized easily. And some operators may want over-the-air alerts, but not cashless payment. Others will want every feature, out of the box. It gives operators the choice." He emphasized that all of Crane's products and services also work well with competing solutions, giving the operator maximum flexibility to build the best solution for its business needs.
Crane's Navigator telemetry device is the heart of the Get Connected program, providing the online connectivity required. It is integrated into every Media machine at no additional cost, as is the Currenza credit-card swipe. Navigator enables cellular airtime, cashless transaction capabilities, remote DEX delivery, MDB and over-the-air alerts, improved accuracy in prekitting and dynamic scheduling and over-the-air updates. Navigator also allows for modular upgrades, swap-outs and feature additions in the future, such as other touchscreen devices, cameras and new cashless bezels.
The telemetry device's memory offers large storage capacity for future needs like video content, product images and nutritional information. It also gives the operator the choice of cellular carrier. The same systems that power Navigator drive all Media's online features, including cashless transactions, remote machine management, nutritional content display, near-real-time data transfer to VendMax or other vending management systems, and real-time alerts.
Crane's Get Connected program also can benefit operators without Media machines, as the Navigator telemetry device can be retrofitted to any existing machine for a one-time hardware fee of $49.
To further enhance Media's turnkey appeal, Crane is working to revise its Get Connected program to offer cashless transaction benefits, including a low percentage rate, simple plan and secure platform to give operators the lowest possible cashless transaction fees. Details of the program will be announced in Crane's booth at the NAMA OneShow in April.
"Crane decided it was safer and more direct to have Navigator talk directly to the processor, and the processor to settle directly to the operator's account; as a company, we don't want to be in the middle of the money flow," said Poch Ceballos, Crane Merchandising Systems online solutions product manager. "Crane charges separately for cellular airtime, Streamware Connect online management software, data and online sales and deposit reports. These tools allow the operator to be more efficient and effective."
Vending operators who sign on for the Get Connected program also gain access to Crane's new Streamware Connect online content-management portal, also set to debut at the OneShow. They open a Streamware Connect account on the company's new customer portal website, streamwareconnect.com.
In the first phase of its springtime launch, the primary focus of Streamware Connect will be to enable operators to remotely track cash and cashless sales and access deposit information. Users eventually will be able to work with the Web portal to set up a library of nutritional information for the products they sell, and to download it to their machines over the air or by transferring it to a flash memory device for use right at the machine. Crane currently sends its customers a file containing nutritional information each time they add a new product.
Ceballos explained that a driving factor behind the design of the portal was the objective of providing added benefits to customers who do not use Crane's VendMax vending management system. "In addition to sales accountability information, VendMax offers detailed analytics, prekitting and dynamic scheduling tools that not all customers use," he continued. "The Streamware Connect portal will provide those customers with convenient access to key cash and cashless sales."
Integrating Navigator and the new Streamware Connect service allows operators to benefit from near-real-time access to sales, inventory, cash and machine data through remote DEX data transfer, as well as service-to-service reconciliation to track cash and cashless sales between machine visits. Real-time data also improves the accuracy of dynamic scheduling and prekitting, and allows full advantage to be taken of the efficient management and prioritization tools that use DEX and MDB alerts.
Ceballos explained that, while Crane's integrated solution offers additional benefits for VendMax customers, the architecture is compliant with the industry's Vending Data Interchange standards. Adherence to the VDI protocols allows the Crane Media system to transfer DEX data to competing vending management software programs, and to accept data into the VendMax suite from competing telemeters.
"Crane was a major architect of the industry's Vending Data Interchange standard and one of the first companies to embrace it," said Santa Cruz. "It's paying dividends by enabling our machines to connect to other hardware and software providers, and their devices to connect with our software."
GOOD AS NEW
Crane reports that a growing number of vending operators are retrofitting Navigators to upgrade their existing machines, since the telemetry devices are fully compatible with virtually all MDB-compliant equipment and can also support third-party bezels, cashless devices and peripherals. Retrofitted Navigator devices can also "mesh," or communicate, with the ones integrated into Media machines as operators add the high-tech venders to their fleets.
Ceballos reported that operators are increasingly reliant on "mesh networking" to provide connectivity to certain venders -- such as those located in a sub-basement -- that cannot connect to a wireless wide-area network. "If you can't get a signal, you don't have the option to walk the vending machine over to the window like you do on a cellphone," he pointed out. A machine in this kind of site is fitted with a wireless interface for local-area networking (WLAN) to communicate within a few hundred meters.
In theory, Ceballos said, numerous machines in a building can perform cashless transactions and other communications functions through just a few machines with the strongest cellular signal. The built-in Navigator in every machine handles the network connections with the machines best able to get on the wireless network.
WORK IN PROGRESS
Crane's Santa Cruz emphasized that both its Media machines and highly customizable Navigator telemetry device are designed to readily accommodate new features and enhancements, to ensure they continue to support cutting-edge solutions for operators and the customers they serve. In addition to the new products and service rolling out this month, many more are in the works.
"Both the Media machines and Navigator are capable of doing so much, and so much more capability is there," concluded Santa Cruz. "We will keep building with more and more, such as over-the-air updates and marketing content, as we build on this 'future-proof' platform."
PHOTO: At left, Media drink and snack venders flank a Voce hot beverage machine. At right, healthy vending graphics decorate a slim 33” wide Media unit.