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Eyeball To Eyeball

Posted On: 5/7/2004

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The National Automatic Merchandising Association's new Spring Expo format was very well received by exhibitors and showgoers alike. The schedule now offers a core of exhibits and topical education programming on Thursday and Friday. This is bracketed by special-registration programs (like the Quality Coffee Certification course) on the Wednesday before, and broad-spectrum introductory seminars (such as the popular "Vending 101" and new "Coffee Fundamentals") on the Saturday after.

It's not hard to grasp the appeal of this format. Those who don't presently need the specialized or generalized sessions can reduce their travel expense and time, while those who do can schedule the extra day before, and/or day after, to participate in them. This surely broadens the appeal of the Expo.

Of course, one cannot help recalling that the last of the early NAMA Western Conventions held in the old Ambassador Hotel (Los Angeles), in 1968, allowed four days to visit about 60 displays, while this year's streamlined schedule provided half the number of days to visit well over three times the number of exhibitors. We did not hear a single complaint about this, which suggests strongly that 36 years' experience, plus vast improvements in communications, have made operators much more confident of their ability to get the product data they need.

As we've often said, the reasons that trade shows survive in an era of instant access to apparently limitless information are, first, that the Internet suffers from some surprising gaps, and even the best websites can't match the ease and efficiency of talking to an expert face to face.

Second, even when the Information Superhighway does work as advertised, it does not lend itself to happy accidents. The visitor at a trade show may come upon something in the next aisle that he or she has never seen (or never noticed) before, and undergo sudden illumination: this is something I could use profitably. It is much more difficult to make that kind of discovery online, because a search engine will only return information on the topic you specify - not one you didn't know existed.

By the same token, today's sophisticated marketing tools can delude suppliers into thinking that they can identify and reach their prospects without going to the trouble and expense of setting up a booth, standing in it, and running the risk of talking to people who can't make a purchase decision.

A paradisal vision of a mechanism that compiles lists of prospects that includes everyone who can make immediate use of a product, and excludes everyone who can't, is pleasant to contemplate. Such fantasies are harmless enough, as long as one never forgets that they are dreams. In the real world, large numbers of potential customers always slip through. And there always are people who don't need the product now, but who will want it in six months or a year. This is especially true in our industry, which does not fit well with Standard Industrial Classifications (or the newer North American Industrial Classification System).

These classification schemes necessarily assume that a company is engaged in one primary activity (such as shoe retailing). A vending operator heavily involved in coffee service, or a music and games operator expanding in merchandise vending, or a bulk vending operator who is placing more and more amusement equipment, has to identify a primary business for the government classifiers. The result is accurate as far as it goes, but it does not go far enough.

We've known coffee service operations that had vending divisions larger than many local vending companies, but that never thought of themselves as vending operators. Anyone using a list organized by SIC codes would have no way of identifying an operation like this as a vending machine or vendible product prospect.

In short, we need trade shows. In fact, the swift pace of technological change, the acceleration of product development lead times and the continuing fragmentation of the retail market makes them more important than ever before. For this reason, we applaud NAMA for its ongoing efforts to adapt its Expo format to operators' present desires and concerns.