Not Just Convenience

Posted On: 5/25/2017

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TAGS: Vending Times, Vending Times editorial, vending industry, coin-op, vending machine, coin machine business, office coffee service, vending machine operator, micro markets, Alicia Lavay, convenience services, office refreshments, NAMA OneShow, Tom Murn's Vicki vending machine

Alicia Lavay, vending, Vending Times

I have just returned from the NAMA OneShow in Las Vegas, and I was amazed by the number of new exhibitors presenting their products and services there. NAMA has not yet tallied the 2017 OneShow's final registration numbers, but the event, pulsing with innovation, had been expected to draw an estimated 4,500 vending, coffee service, micromarket and foodservice professionals, and to host more than 300 exhibitors.

The consensus among exhibitors with whom we spoke was that the exposition was packed with operators ready to invest in equipment, technology and products to elevate the consumer experience and strengthen their bottom lines.

I believe that the vending industry is at last rebounding from the series of unfortunate circumstances that overtook it in 2007-2008, aided by an economy that continues to display a vitality which seems surprising to many. I wonder whether all the wailing about the collapse of civilization that accompanied last year's campaigns and election, and the UK's decision to leave the European Union, blinded everyone to the fact that employment is strong and apparently getting stronger. A variety of unusual products were displayed at OneShow by new exhibitors who are interested in the possibility of vending them. Something is going on here, and I think it's very positive.

But, in view of all this, I wonder why, when there is so much positivity permeating the vending industry, the term "vending" apparently continues to cause discomfort? When I tell people I cover the vending industry, they know exactly what I am talking about -- and most of them think it's pretty cool. Would they even know what I meant if I said I covered the convenience services industry? In my humble opinion, vending is more relevant than ever. For example, Tom Murn's "Vicki" vending machine was just featured on the cover of Crain's New York Business.

Here's a little history that might entertain some of you. "Automatic merchandising" was, itself, a redefinition of "vending" that was intended to avoid the gangster connotation of "vending" in the 1930s. The Texas association (now a NAMA state council) adopted the term "merchandise vending" to differentiate itself from those other operators of diabolical coin machines. Three decades ago, when the full-line revolution had run out of steam because of "deindustrialization" and vending machines had begun to appear with microprocessor controllers, there was a widespread, diffuse feeling that the term "vending machine" elicited a reflex mental picture of an old coffee dispenser placed under the pipes in the factory basement. National Vendors coined the description "electronic retailing" to better describe its products. That term did not catch on.

The problem was, and to some extent remains, real enough; you can build all kinds of new technology into a large vertical metal box, and the unenlightened will say, "Oh, that's a vending machine." I say, "so what's wrong with vending machines?" I wonder whatever became of NAMA's "gratitude tour" initiative, the premise of which was that young people no longer had the negative image of "vending." The Gratitude Tours proved that point -- after which the emphasis shifted to finding something else to call it.

I recognize the problem of finding a description of everything a NAMA member might do. Vending Times has encountered a similar issue. The original office coffee service model is straightforward, practical, economical and still widely used -- but it isn't vending. Many vending operators have added OCS to their services, and many OCS operators have added vending machines to theirs, but the two things conceptually are polar opposites. And a micromarket might be seen as a vending machine that employs the customer as the dispensing and accounting mechanism. The concept is based on applying payment and inventory management technologies invented for vending to a popular new retailing method that is something like a walk-in vending machine, but cannot be confused with one. To be sure, all of these service methods offer convenience, but so do pizzerias that deliver, ride-sharing apps, toothpicks and back-scratchers.

Late in the last century, a chain of paint stores in our part of the world expanded its line to include wall coverings, floor coverings and other decorative treatment, and so changed its name to "Martin Home Decorating Centers." It ran amusing commercials to publicize its new default slogan: "It ain't just paint!"

In my opinion, this "convenience services" moniker has the look of an exhausted compromise -- you can't argue with it, but it's terminally vague -- and it was co-opted by our roadside competitors half a century ago (Merriam-Webster reports that the term "convenience store" was first used in 1965). Likewise, NAMA's new tagline, "Bringing Convenience to Life," works as well for coin laundries or indoor plumbing.

Perhaps at 50 years young, I am just old school. But, really, what would be wrong with "It ain't just vending"?