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Issue Date: Vol. 43, No. 2 / February 25, 2003 - March 24, 2003, Posted On: 2/25/2003


They All Laughed At Christopher Columbus...


Tim Sanford
Editor@vendingtimes.net

It has been said that experience is the human faculty that enables us to recognize a mistake when we make it again. This surely is true, but paying too much attention to it can lead to missed opportunities.

Many, perhaps most, successful products and services are perfected over time. It is unusual for something wholly new to burst upon the scene, ready for market. For example, glass-front vending machines were around, in various forms, during the 1960s and perhaps earlier. They did not find application in mainstream vending for a decade or more, not because they were unworkable, but because the vending product mix did not require them, and the market was not ready for them. The meteoric rise in demand for bagged snacks and the extraordinary proliferation of vendible products created the need, and improved pricing technology provided a practical way to meet it.

More interesting is the case of the countertop (or water-cooler-styled) single-cup fresh brew coffee machine. The first of these were developed at the same time as the earliest successful full-sized machines (then called "self-brew" coffee venders), in the late '50s. For the next four decades, at least one (usually two or three) models always were on the market. Many of these were entirely satisfactory, and some developed loyal (though small) operator followings. But, until recently, they were confined to narrow niches, and were usually deployed to satisfy a peculiar location need. The market resisted their expense and complexity. When clients wanted cheap coffee, without regard to consistent quality, there always were simpler ways to provide it. When the specialty coffee boom began to develop momentum, people in workplaces demanded better coffee, and often were willing to pay for it. This shift in taste started today's small single-cup machines on their steady ascent into the mainstream.

It's interesting to recall that the espresso machine was invented, prior to World War I, to brew and serve a single cup of freshly-brewed coffee in 15 seconds. The fresh-brew coffee vending machine was designed to accomplish exactly the same thing, without human intervention, half a century later.

Engineering advances certainly have made vending machines more reliable, versatile and capable. But changes in market desires have determined which ones will be successful. And those desires keep on changing.

That's why it is so dangerous, when looking at a new implementation of an old idea, to say: "We tried that 10 years ago, and it didn't work." That experience surely is valuable, in arming the victim of the decade-ago failure with important questions for the purveyor of the new thing, and perhaps in providing insight into how not to market it. But it is not a valid reason for never, ever trying it again. The customer base has changed, the product mix has changed, the world has changed.

Perhaps even more dangerous is the role of experience in making us expert in, and comfortable with, things that do work well. This familiarity can blind us to the possible advantages of an improved version, or of something that appears to serve the same purpose in a new way. Thus, people who knew and loved mechanical "Comptometers" and similar office machines resisted calculators and computers; what could an electronic gadget do better? A certain traditionalist segment of the photographic fraternity likewise resists digital imaging.

This is by no means to argue for uncritical acceptance of innovation. Almost anything that worked well 10, or 20, or 30 years ago can continue to work just as well as it ever did, if parts are still available for it. But such things usually have characteristics that become limitations, increasing in severity as time goes by and newer alternatives, with expanded capabilities, reach the market.

Both of these experience-based failures of perception will work against operators who do not correct them. There has been a good deal of discussion, over the past couple of years, about the uncertain prospects for smaller independents in a world of consolidation and spiraling costs of technology. During this discussion, numbers of very small independents have been finding lucrative niches for new types of equipment (some of which are not new at all) in the context of innovative service methods (some of which are not really new, either).

We think it very likely that these entrepreneurs will find ways to apply new technology to reinventing the vending and coffee service business. They regard innovation as something to go out and sell, not something to grumble about and wonder how to pay for. The great advantage that many of them possess is that they don't know what was demonstrated to be impractical, 10 or 20 years ago. Of course, some will learn that a bad idea in 1970 still is a bad idea today; but many will find a way to make it work.

It is important to keep an open mind, not only about new things, but about old things coming around again, and new alternatives to things that work well now. The past two decades have taught most of us to be very wary about saying, "That will never work." This decade bids fair to complete our education, by training us away from relying on unexamined experience when considering whether something once unworkable might work now, or something workable might with profit be replaced by something that will work better.


Topic: Editorial: Vending

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