U.S.A. - The vending industry enters 2003 with the widest variety of equipment options in its history. Over the past few years, several new concepts have been refined through testing, while contemporary technology has been streamlined and applied to the introduction of designs aimed at different segments of the ever-growing vending service market.
In reviewing operator equipment options for the year ahead, it may be helpful to consider a few overall principles. First, vending machines enter production and enjoy successful deployment when engineering, which dictates what can be done, is guided by the market, which decides what can be done most profitably. This surely is true to a degree of many industrial products, but it is particularly evident in vending.
Thus, changes in consumer preference and expectation play an important role in the way vending machines present their wares to the patron.
In fact, patron response to vending innovation often outweigh considerations of service complexity. Fast loading and low maintenance are important to operators, although not so important as to rule out innovations that markedly increase patron appeal, or dramatically improve profit while maintaining or increasing unit volumes.
This accounted for the success of postmix cold cup drink machines when vending was primarily engaged in supplying a few universally popular products to large numbers of people in industrial workplaces and other structured environments, nearly half a century ago. It also was the determinant in the triumph of the glassfront snack and candy machine, a quarter-century ago.
It also is important to remember that consumers seldom know whether a vending machine embodies a revolutionary new operating principle or a tried-and-true technique. They are dependent upon visual cues; bean-grinding coffee machines succeeded only when the customer could see coffee beans through a window, and watch the level go down as their selections were prepared.
More generally, attractive styling alone can increase the value of reliable engineering. When full-sized vending machines were new, and home appliances had rounded corners and enamel finishes, vending machines also had these styling attributes. Patrons felt comfortable with them.
Increasing criticism of the "beige blahs" in the early '70s demonstrated industry concern over unimaginative styling, and creative vendors have been surrounding their equipment with imaginative area treatment for as long as there have been vending machine banks. The advent of handsome, removable textured synthetics provided much greater flexibility in tailoring vending machine style to location preference.
Today's vending equipment has caught up with current trends in workplace decor and business machine design. Thought now is being given to supplementing, or replacing, traditional uniform banks of vending machines with color-identified machine pairs or clusters, emulating retail food courts by making it faster for patrons to find what they want and encouraging them to make multiple purchases of complementary products.
Vending machine peripherals (such as payment systems) that add expense or complexity to the business nevertheless can find favor if they produce substantially higher sales. The advantages offered by coin changers, and later by bill validators, to consumers stimulated enough additional sales revenue to justify the expense of installing them.
Again, patron expectations change over time, and successful vending equipment changes in step. Well into the 1960s, many small items could be bought at newsstands and candy stores for a nickel, a dime, or a quarter. Vending machines that sold similar items at any of these single prices were well accepted. The inflation that marked the end of the postwar economic boom three decades ago, and the widespread adoption of sales taxes, changed the dynamics of small retail transactions, and began to create interest in regaining payment simplicity.
Today, continual improvements in telecommunications and computing have extended card-based cashless payment technology into almost every kind of retail establishment. Consumers have become increasingly comfortable with cashless payments, and expect to be able to use their "plastic" for an increasingly wide range of transactions.
Cashless payment systems for vending have been around for a century, if one considers tokens the original cashless payment medium, and card-based payment media have been available since the mid-1970s to meet specific location requirements.
To date, operators have deployed these systems when asked to do so by their clients , principally colleges and universities, but also corporate campuses, correctional institutions and specialized facilities like meat packing plants. As the public's desire for cashless small transactions grows, the technology to address this desire continues to improve. The two trends surely will coincide.
Fast-improving data communications and data processing technology, which has made it possible for a merchant terminal in a vending machine to authenticate a credit or debit card by accessing a remote computer over a data link (often wireless), also has increased the appeal of remote vending machine monitoring. Since both cashless vending and telemetry have proven potential for improving sales, the ability to use a single accessory to implement both seems increasingly attractive.
Finally, the evolution of the single-serve food and snack market affects vending design in a variety of ways. When individually-wrapped convenience foods, pastry, desserts and snacks were new and unfamiliar, four decades ago, a premium was placed on transparent or windowed packaging and glass vending machine doors. Patrons wanted to see what they were offered before they bought it.
With the vending and convenience store industries competing to popularize portion-packed items for immediate consumption, branding increasingly is regarded as the assurance of quality. The trend in modern packaging has been to maximize product recognition and graphic impact, even at the expense of visibility. This may have implications for vending machine design, as much in hot beverage dispensing (where a trusted brand can replace the visual cues associated with coffee brewing) as in food, ice cream and (perhaps) even snacks.
In all of these areas, progress in technology and in marketing theory are converging to move vending machines toward the center of the retailing mainstream. Imaginative operators seeking to turn the page and start writing a new chapter of vending history certainly do not lack the tools.