We recently received the most intriguing telephone call of the new year, from a radio reporter following up on a story idea. He said that some of the newsroom staffers had been speaking with the route driver who fills their vending machines, and the driver told them that the current economic uncertainties and stresses were increasing his workload. With fuel prices high and concern with job security on the rise, people were not going out for lunch and snacks, he explained; they were buying these things from the vending machines. Thus, he was busier than he had been in a long time.
Our caller wanted to know whether this is, indeed, a trend in the vending industry. We replied that we certainly hope so, but we have no way of knowing.
We observed that actual studies of people who use vending machines regularly – or who have regular access to vending machines but don’t use them much – have been few and far between. Recent research, designed to gauge overall public attitudes toward vending and to estimate the number of Americans buying from machines at all, have cast a very wide net. Their findings have not been without interest, but the methodology has precluded recognizing that the population really falls into two groups: those who see only packaged cold drink machines in public sites, and so think of these when asked about “vending machines,” and a smaller group who work or study in an environment that provides full-line vending service. This includes many employees in larger workplaces, many students and a few other entities bound by one or another affinity, and is the group that we really need to study.
Are they staying in and using the machines more, as the cost of driving to the coffee shop increases and they feel the hot breath of the efficiency experts on the backs of their necks? It surely seems reasonable that they may be. Operators who have been paying attention for the past half-century have been selling vending, coffee service and contract foodservice management as morale-boosting benefits that not only will demonstrate the employer’s regard for the workforce, but will keep employees happily on site and productive. And, if an individual receiving the same compensation as last year is paying half a dollar per gallon more for fuel, it stands to reason that he or she will either drive less, or spend less on items other than gasoline – restaurant meals, for example.
But we don’t know, because we don’t know just why people choose to buy something from a vending machine, or to wait to purchase it from an alternative source.
Three decades ago, two graduate students at Purdue University designed and conducted a study to find these things out. Their method was to visit vending breakrooms, chat with the customers and record their responses. They received the enthusiastic cooperation of the Indiana Vending Council in undertaking the project. In return, they shared a summary of their findings with IVC at its annual conference, and the presentation was so well-received that they were invited to repeat it at a NAMA national convention. Everyone agreed that this was the sort of thing we needed to encourage, and needed to do much more of.
Nothing came of it, because this industry has had no structure within which that kind of research could be institutionalized. Vending can react strongly and effectively to unfair rules or confiscatory tax proposals, through its state organizations and NAMA. Until recently, there have been real constraints on proactive initiatives designed to increase overall vending sales and enhance public perception. This limitation has not been unique to the workplace services. The largest players tend to be averse to paying for programs that might build business for their smaller competitors, and smaller players who pride themselves on excellence have been averse to underwriting efforts from which their less committed competitors might benefit disproportionately.
However, this may be changing. NAMA’s Balanced for Life program has demonstrated that a potential threat can be countered by initiatives that help everyone. The strengthening liaison between our industry and the academic community should make new resources available, as students trained in the social sciences apply research methods to identifying new opportunities.
The need is real, and the tools for meeting it are coming into existence. Until they appear, we will only be able to speculate on how patrons really view our equipment and our services.