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Interactive Venders Stand Test Of Time With Innovations And Upgrades

Posted On: 1/15/2006

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U.S.A. -- They were not supposed to last. Industry pundits looked at the new machines and dubbed them "gizmos," "gimcracks" and worse. They were, according to some of the best minds in bulk vending, destined for the dumpster of industry history.

How wrong they were. More than a decade after their introduction, a steady stream of new concepts and machines continue to enter the industry. Granted, these machines have not all been successful; ever-imaginative manufacturers have introduced some real duds in recent years. But those machines that did succeed have transformed the industry.

In the often-told story of the introduction of spirals, it was not the established bulk vending community that launched their success. "It was the biz-op people who didn't have preconceived notions of how much a machine should cost and what it should look like that started it," said Dave Haymond, founder or Global Gumball and inventor of the spiral vender. "The established operator was kind of left in the dust for awhile. He was so into buying his regular machine heads, he couldn't wrap his mind around paying over $1,000 for a machine that sat in the same spot."

Operators, of course, had their reasons for not accepting the new concept. Did kids really care how the gumball was delivered? And, too, the machines were plastic -- plastic! -- a heretical material for many bulk vending operators of long experience. The prevailing wisdom was to let the new guys, the amateurs, purchase the new equipment while experienced operators stuck with the tried, true and traditional.

According to Haymond, it took about five years from the initial introduction of the Gumball Wizard in 1993 until established operators began to accept the concept. "They [traditional operators] started coming on board in 1998 or 1997," he said. "And they haven't looked back, either. It redefined them. Locations that would normally not take a bulk head would take a spiral. These machines really made room for bulk -- for the established bulk vending operators and the biz-op people."

Jeff Ostler of OK Manufacturing, another early entrant into the spiral field, sees the expansion of machine types as almost inevitable. "There must be 20 different ways to deliver a product in the retail world," he explained. "We have mail order, purchase direct, people come to your home and infomercials. In vending, we're finding new ways to deliver the product. With the spirals, it was the same product operators had sold forever -- gumballs -- it was how that product was delivered that made the machines a success."

The long-term effects of the spirals, according to industry watchers, are still being felt in the bulk vending segment. Operators not only gained access to new locations, they were also able to think beyond standard rack configurations to maximize machine density within a single location.

All this activity has not gone unnoticed by manufacturers of traditional machines or the entrepreneurial-minded operator. Manufacturers, whose design innovations focused almost solely on operator and route personnel features, began introducing new and inventive stands and machine designs. Eager to expand their machines' acceptability in locations such as shopping malls, within upscale locations and other venues, they've continued to reformat their machines.


To be sure, there were some false starts following the success of the spirals. So-called "kinetic" machines, despite innovative designs, never really took off. These machines, which delivered a gumball after it traveled down a series of ramps, steps, "water wheels" and through chimes rarely found their market. Although they added entertainment to the purchase, the machines were often expensive to purchase, difficult to maintain and simply too complex for the average bulk vending location.

One concept that did take off and continues to flourish is that of the "interactive" bulk vender. Typically configured in the form of a game, such as pinball, the machines have become favorites among forward-thinking operators as both a "fill in" piece that maximizes location profitability and a showcase item that allows operators to get their foot in the door.

"They do open doors for people, that's for sure," said Lydia Plescia of Impulse Amusements, which manufactures the Playmore-Winmore line of pinball-themed bulk venders. "It's easy to get them in locations, and they generate repeat play. And, if operators use it to fill in a location, they don't subtract from the bulk rack because it's a game."

Maris Opfar, sales manager for U-Turn Vending, which recently acquired the Sports Blaster line of interactive games, sees the best potential for interactive units in such locations as skating rinks, bowling alleys, movie theaters and family restaurants. "You have the same attraction as a spiral machine, but the potential for multiple quarters," he observed. "It brings the interaction, which really generates second, third and fourth vends. It's not just put your quarter in and get a prize. You have an interactive element and people love to compete and win."

Presently, Opfar added, U-Turn is prototyping a version of the Sports Blaster unit that includes traditional bulk heads. "We're taking it from one mechanism and adding two more mechanisms," he said. "This will enable the operator to have 2-in. capsules or high-bounce balls along with the game. Now they can utilize that same space, but have three mechanisms working for them instead of just the one. The response has been phenomenal. Operators can bring in more money without procuring more space in the location."


Operators have adapted to these changes in the industry. An increasing number of operators over recent years have reported testing newly introduced equipment types in the same manner that they test products. Even relatively small operators have become less risk averse, purchasing one or two units to test on select locations.

Another general trend is that of the "filler location." With rising fuel prices and overhead, an increasing number of operators are looking to fill the gaps between their key stops. Seen as marginally profitable only a few years ago, these locations are usually independent comic book stores, clothing outlets or record stores capable of accommodating a very limited number of bulk heads, providing they fit with the décor.

"There aren't many locations that I can't get into," said one California-based operator. "Hotel gift shops, kids clothing stores, restaurants are all open now, if you have the right machine. The trick is figuring the return on investment. If it's profitable, it's worth the effort."