While a certain despondency has characterized some industry observers over the past year, the recent National Automatic Merchandising Association 2002 National Expo did not reflect that gloom. The business sessions were well attended, and the mood at the trade show was decidedly upbeat.
Of course, the continued economic uncertainty has made new business harder to find and existing business more difficult, as employee populations shrink and location managers adopt a cautious posture. However, there is a lot of potential business out there, but it is not exactly out there for the asking.
For a quarter of a century, the majority of vending operators who are in it for the long haul have been dealing with the evolution of the old industrial workplace market, with its high volume and low expectation, into a potential customer base that is more difficult to serve profitably, but which also holds potentially greater rewards. The industry has recognized that it must "work smarter, not harder," and has been saying so for two decades and more.
Change in the vending industry hardly ever occurs overnight. Even the epochal new technologies, like the fresh-brew coffee machine or glass-front snack vender, never have swept their rivals from the field in a brief, violent campaign. We once wrote a little satire about a Martian observer who only can come to Earth every seven years, because of the distances involved. Every time he visits, he is astonished by the tremendous changes that have taken place in vending, although those who watch it day by day complain that nothing dramatic ever happens.
We could not write this kind of spoof today, because no one complains that "there's nothing new at the show." Perhaps more encouraging, fewer and fewer are complaining that there are too many new things, and they are in danger of being overwhelmed.
Once the microelectronics revolution began to affect vending machine design - around 1980 , progress has been continual but not steady. There have been periods of innovation, followed by periods of accommodation. New technologies are introduced, then tested, fine-tuned, and at last assimilated, setting the stage for another round of innovation.
This has been especially evident in the area of vending machine data capture and data communications. An increasingly hot topic over the past four or five years, the Vending Industry Data Transfer Standard, almost always called "DEX," seems to have arrived. It is rare to find an operator who does not think it's a good idea, but there has been quite realistic concern with erratic implementation of the standard as well as other rough edges involving handheld computers, cables, and so forth.
The sense we got at the recent NAMA show is that there is growing confidence that these problems have been overcome and the corner has been turned. If operators act on this belief, and the belief is well founded, the impact on route productivity and absolute sales volume will be tremendous (though, as always, not realized overnight). Best of all, attaining the point at which that impact is experienced will position the operating company for fairly straightforward adoption of other new technologies with equally happy results. No one says this is easy, but more and more people think it's attainable.
That confidence seemed to carry over to a host of new products and new ideas displayed at the show. Operators expressed great interest in everything from magazine-loading venders to simple but sophisticated cashless payment systems. If it ever was true that "operators don't want to hear about anything that doesn't have a coin slot in it," that surely is not true now.
Of course, healthy skepticism (or simple realism) always will be seen by visionaries, or by those who simply do not understand the practical problems, as sloth and reluctance to change. But there seems to be greater realism on the part of technology providers. Over the past decade, perhaps the two groups have become more familiar with one another, and a certain mutual respect has emerged. That process preceded the widespread adoption of computers and management software, two decades ago.
Whatever the explanation, the positive attitude evident at the show certainly cannot be attributed to the national (or global) economy. We think that the continuing flow of new products into vending , gourmet hot beverages, attractive milk-based drinks, whole new lines of ethnic confections and snacks, and so on and on , contributed greatly to that attitude, as did the real advances in vending machine design that were showcased.
Ultimately, however, we suspect that this is the year , or, at least, one of the pivotal years , that will be recalled by future historians: "The shift to automated data collection, and the resulting improvements to the speed and accuracy of management decision-making, occurred around 2002." And that, whatever the present economic outlook, those historians will be likely to look back at the present period and say, "that was the Golden Age of vending." There seems to be some reason to think that it is, to make hay while the sun shines, and to enjoy it.