A new year prompts an obligatory look back, and for many this won't be a particularly pleasant exercise this time around. The past year, while not terrible, was filled with a sense of unease and uncertainty for most in the bulk vending business. More than a few operators have seen some longtime locations vanish and many of the remaining are struggling to stay afloat. Some operators have reported pulling equipment from locations lest they lose it to a rapid store closing, even as they report sales inching back up to near normal in other locations. The signs are confusing and often contradictory. A simple perusal of the business pages is enough to make horoscopes look downright scientific.
I'd like to offer an alternate view of the bulk vending universe. The phrase, "the new normal" is perhaps the most overused and misapplied description in business today. I would argue that business, like fashion, technology, music and a thousand other examples, is in a constant state of transition. The problem with the meaning behind "the new normal" is that it assumes a semipermanent static state. This is both intuitively and quantifiably wrong (but a "catchy" catch phrase obscures just how wrong it is).
Looking back at 2012, it is easy to see positive changes in bulk vending. Despite a tightening of credit, we've seen an increasing number of forward-thinking operators moving into new equipment categories. Skill cranes, prize merchandisers and other types of equipment are no longer viewed as exotic or pricy by bulk vendors. They are valued additions to select locations. This trend, which has been chugging away for several years, is showing no signs of letting up. Not only does it play to the typical bulk vending operator's expertise in merchandising, it also adds to the bottom line in strong locations.
Another upbeat aspect of the industry is the continued migration of operators to higher-priced vends. While not as rapid as the 25¢-to-50¢ transition that happened decades ago, the past year has seen steady progress moving into 75¢ and $1 vends. We're not near a tipping point where the higher prices are the norm, but we're getting there.
Lastly, suppliers have shown no signs of falling behind the trend lines. It is no secret that trends today are cycling through bulk vending's key demographics faster than ever before. An item that is hot today could lose appeal in just a few short weeks. Suppliers of licensed product, generic capsule merchandise and flat items have kept up a heroic pace. (Take a moment to consider what's involved in identifying trends and bringing them to market in a timely fashion, then send your suppliers a nice box of candy and some flowers.) If sales are inching up as reported, suppliers deserve a large share of the credit.
It is possible to look back on the year past and see not a moribund "new normal," but growth in an ever-evolving industry. Yes, cashboxes and bottom lines may be down from several years ago, but there is no hard evidence they will remain depressed forever. Entrepreneurs are natural optimists. Some bulk vending operators, the ultimate entrepreneurs, are always looking ahead.