Progress in science and technology always occurs when methods are found to move beyond speculative discussion and anecdotal evidence, and find out what actually is happening. As an example, artists had been arguing about the depiction of a galloping horse since the days of ancient Greece: do all four feet leave the ground at once, or do they not? This argument was settled once and for all by the early application of rapid-sequence photography, in the late 19th Century.
We bring this up because retail merchandising also advances in this way. Shopkeepers have had beliefs and theories about the most effective assortment and display of merchandise, presumably for thousands of years. The development of ways to test different displays and determine exactly how consumers respond awaited the development of real-time transaction capture by intelligent cash registers, and of computer software that could process this stream of sales data and produce reports that allowed side-by-side comparison of the results of different varieties and display arrangements. This has revolutionized grocery and mass-market merchandising.
The vending industry now is in a position to take the same forward leap. Innovators from other industries tend to underrate the sales acumen of vending operators, but our industry always has prized close contact with customers, and has developed fairly sophisticated rules of thumb for adjusting machine menus and optimizing displays for different kinds of location in different markets.
For four decades, vendors have devoted a great deal of attention to presenting food to best advantage in refrigerated vending machines. They have chosen appropriate packaging to display each item, and colored shelf liners to enhance appeal. They have developed more or less intricate cyclical menus to provide patrons with a continually varying choice, while always offering the most popular items.
Those merchandising skills found new application when glassfront snack machines won industry acceptance a quarter of a century ago. Suddenly confronted with the challenge of displaying 30 or 40 items rather than five or 10, operators watched their customers using the new equipment and formed a wide variety of opinions about what actually was going on.
Two of these opinions, with some minor variations, became fairly widespread. One is that sales are maximized by arranging selections with high-profit items displayed at the upper right or in the center, and always following the same plan in arranging the merchandise. The belief is that people who don't know what they want are more likely to buy something that catches the eye, while people who have a specific product in mind will respond most favorably if they can find it right away.
The other opinion also holds that high-profit items can be presented to best advantage by putting them in a particular place - at eye level and on the right, or near eye level and in the center , but that the way to maximize sales overall is to change the display as frequently as possible, "mixing up" products. The idea here is that people who must "shop" the machine are more likely to try something different, if they happen upon it while looking for a favorite.
Do these views reflect the way people actually "shop" vending machines? Do they "shop" in a T pattern, scanning the top shelf and then looking down the middle of the machine first? Should the retail model for a vending machine be the "general store," offering the widest possible range of merchandise, or the high-volume mass retail outlet, stocking as many facings as necessary of a limited variety of very popular products?
Operators have needed to know these things for decades now. As the radio commercials say, "Well, now you can!" In-machine data capture, retrieval of this data with handheld route computers, and the use of computer programs written to analyze and summarize the information all work together to allow the industry to supplement its well-informed visceral sense of what patrons want with hard facts about what they actually buy.
This information is increasingly important in maximizing sales revenue from each machine, and pleasing the greatest number of customers. The time to get it is now.