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Issue Date: Vol. 45, No. 9, September 2005, Posted On: 9/23/2005

Where Do We Go From Here?

Tim Sanford

People interested in the progress of engineering often refer to a principle that has been called "Amara's Law," usually stated: We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run. Examples of this rule in practice will occur to everyone.

We think that the cause of this is to be found in the unanticipated consequences of technical advances. The electric telegraph was exciting enough as a means of conquering distance and time; no one could foresee that the challenge of automating the reception of telegrams would lead, eventually, to the digital computer and the Internet.

Most technical advances are marked by an initial period of promise and confusion, when the "early adopters" figure out what the new thing can do immediately and locally. This is followed by a longer period of quiet development, during which an ever-larger number of users with more and more diverse interests and concerns become familiar with the technology, and apply it in diverse ways. Those applications, in turn, often change the behavior and expectations of greater and greater numbers of people surrounding the quiet innovators. The cumulative effect of all this almost always surpasses the expectations of those early adopters, and seldom (or never) could have been predicted.

For instance, the application of computers to management information systems for vending initially was driven by a desire for fast, accurate cash-to-inventory reconciliation. People who wanted this often were willing to give up a good deal of flexibility to get it. It was more straightforward, when setting up a new-fangled glassfront snack machine, to assign one price to everything in a particular package size than to burden the route driver with lengthy record-keeping tasks, and to incur the difficulty of checking machines in the field to see that their prices had been set correctly. What was good enough for a nine-column candy vender was good enough for a 36-select snack machine.

As the industry developed greater fluency, and new tools came along to reinforce the computer in the office, operators began to appreciate what the potential flexibility of the new equipment could do for their sales. It could be argued that traversing that learning curve, throughout most of the 1980s, made life a good deal easier for everyone when cold drink package sizes, categories and price points began to proliferate in the next decade.

We naturally look at advances in vending technology from the perspective of the seller's problems and opportunities. However, the large-scale, long-term impact of those advances is exerted by the customers - a group whose composition is continually changing, and which acts in an environment that is changing, too.

Full-line vending, thus, proved far superior to any other service method in meeting the need for refreshments around the clock. While it was doing that, it was familiarizing consumers with the convenience of packaged single portions of many products that, well into the 1960s, were regarded as grocery items purchased for final preparation and serving to a family. And, while all this was going on, the automobile and the telephone were evolving from their initial role as amenities into life-altering essentials.

Imaginative fiction is full of predictions about the World of the Future, and all of them have been wrong. This has been noticed, and has led to the recognition that straight-line extrapolation simply doesn't work in forecasting social change.

But it can be helpful to look back over the industry's "wish list" and to point out that many of the items on it now are realities, or can easily become so. It is entirely possible to obtain frequently-updated records of line-item sales, and to adjust machine menus by selectively discarding the slowest-moving items in favor of new ones that may prove more popular. By the same token, it is altogether feasible to develop accurate sales forecasts and to adjust load plans so that the service frequency can be increased with minimal risk of running out of a best-seller. It is entirely possible to "bundle" complementary products , for example, offering the purchaser of a package of crackers a discount on the purchase of a cold drink. All of these things have been recommended; they now can be done. The consequences of doing them are hard to quantify, but surely will be beneficial.

Topic: Editorial: Vending

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