Anyone following the news these days might be forgiven for concluding that no one is able to say, with certainty, just what is going on. Veteran commodities traders differ widely in their assessments of the role that speculation plays in keeping petroleum prices high despite falling demand, and on the worldwide runup in food cost.
Veteran analysts differ as much in their opinions about the effect of the current problems of the financial services sector as on the rest of the economy: Either the worst is over, or the worst is yet to come. And all the attention being called to “climate change” by interested parties, on one side or the other, may result in hasty action by a Congress unsettled by public fear and frustration, intensified by the impending election.
While watching all of this play out, and remembering other periods of equal or greater uncertainty – the persistent inflation and inconsequential economic growth of the later 1970s, or the spectacular stock market collapse of 1987 and its aftermath, for example – it may be well to remember that the organizations which came through those troubled times intact tended to be the ones that concentrated on everyday sound management and good customer service. We think the same focus will pay off now.
One curious aspect of the present situation is that the public seemed to be exhibiting as much disquiet early this year, before the current economic crises became evident, as they are exhibiting now. We have wondered whether this dissatisfaction is not rooted in some ongoing changes that a few observers have noted, but no one (to our knowledge) had diagnosed. These include an unanticipated consequence of the ongoing technological revolution (nobody knows how anything works, nothing works right and nobody knows how to fix it) and a natural, though unexpected, offshoot of the gradual rise of a new “investor class.”
In the old days, successful corporations addressed their clientele, explaining every change in product line or policy in terms of doing what was best for their customers. Nowadays, the audience is the investor: When your favorite product is discontinued after 75 years of market success, or a company you’ve been loyal to all your life gets acquired and disappears, you are told that all of this is happening to maximize value to the shareholders.
We think all the people who were making good progress in finding their own productive uses for computers, back before writing documentation became unfashionable and the surviving software publishers began maximizing value to their shareholders, are frustrated. They, like all the people who were taught to think of themselves as valued customers, but now cannot find anyone to complain to when something goes wrong, are experiencing a real sense of dislocation or dispossession.
This, surely, is an opportunity for our industries. Operators – of vending, music and games, coffee service – never have been able to become invisible to their customers. They, and their route personnel and supervisors, encounter those customers every day. Good operators always have known the importance of listening to clients and doing their best to respond.
The economic situation at present is causing discomfort, and it is discomfort that these industries can relieve in small but appreciated ways. Vending is very competitive with other retailers of single-serving snacks, beverages and food items, and will remain so even if operators manage to pass their cost increases along to their customers as rapidly as those other channels do. Coffee service is more than competitive with gourmet coffee shops. And workplace patrons can enjoy vending and/or OCS without having to drive across town.
What’s more, technology is working to our advantage. Today’s vend assurance controls answer one of the longstanding complaints consumers have had about vending, and today’s payment options can answer another one. The variety of sophisticated brewers that deliver outstanding coffee never has been greater, and would have been unimaginable a decade and a half ago.
To be sure, the world economy might collapse tomorrow, or the Antarctic ice cap might melt. At present, however, employment remains low by historic standards, and people unsettled by warnings of imminent disaster are, perhaps, disproportionately pleased by small, repeated daily satisfactions. These industries have grown by offering those pleasures, which never have been more valued.