Optimal Integrates Vending Into New Retailing Concepts

Posted On: 3/5/2018

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SKY'S THE LIMIT: Michele Sparks and Teddy Sanchez founded Optimal Vending Systems as a one-stop shop to customize vending machines for brands, marketers and operators seeking to leverage automated retail to engage today's consumers in novel ways. They provide a range of ambient, refrigerated, frozen, hot beverage and cigarette venders and software that they can tailor to any need. 
MIAMI -- Vending pros Michele Sparks and Teddy Sanchez are pooling their respective operating and manufacturing skills and experience in a new company, Optimal Vending Systems. Based in Miami, the start-up's specialty is customizing machines in relevant and novel ways for brands, marketers and established operators seeking to leverage the "wow factor" that today's automated retail technology can deliver.

"We want to be a liaison and connect the dots for our customers, so that we are a one-stop solution," Sparks said. "Companies are looking for innovative ways to brand and market their products and to interact with consumers. Automated retail is becoming a very attractive vehicle to achieve those goals. If they have a vision, we can make it a reality. If they don't have an exact vision, we can create a captivating machine that fits what they're trying to accomplish."

This service includes creating custom exterior graphic designs incorporating touchscreens that can educate consumers about the products inside and display ads to generate an additional revenue stream. Optimal can also tailor software for any application, including integrating the vending machine with social media apps so it will dispense an item at the click of a post, or tweet of a hashtag. The company also can create customized games for users to play on the machine's touchscreen display, to accumulate credit toward their purchases.

"Through these social media interactions, and cameras in the machines, we get analytic data – how many males and how many females visited the machine, and their age range. This is very valuable to marketers," Sparks noted.

ENDLESS POSSIBILITIES

Sparks and Sanchez are on a mission not only to meet new demands for vending equipment, but also to play an active role in expanding the applications for automatic retailing beyond traditional boundaries. They are reaching out to a variety of industries and attending tradeshows to demonstrate the high-tech ways in which vending machines can be used to serve, or capture, new audiences.

"We're knowledgeable and flexible enough to offer customers the perfect machine for whatever they need," Sparks said. "We can customize machines for indoors or out, with different cabinet designs to visually fit into a mall or storefront, and customize the software too. We can tie machines into social media, dispense prizes – whatever application they envision and desire."

Sanchez's background is in mechanical engineering, most recently as director of operations for the U.S. division of Spain-based vending machine manufacturer Jofemar. He worked for Jofemar for seven years, beginning in a technical support role.

Sparks started her own vending route, Prime Vending (Martinsburg, WV), in 2011, after working in marketing and sales in other businesses and industries. The machines she purchased initially were manufactured by Jofemar; she bought them from a "healthy vending" franchisor. After receiving little of the support the business opportunity purveyor had promised, the novice operator turned directly to Jofemar for guidance.

That's when she met Sanchez, who trained her to operate and maintain her machines by herself. She learned to do this so well that Jofemar soon asked the novice operator to be its spokesperson at trade shows, where she demonstrated the speed and ease of servicing Jofemar venders. She also served as a resource to other operators of Jofemar equipment throughout the country, fielding their questions and providing advice based on her own experience.

"I learned all my technical skills from Teddy; I know when to pick up a screwdriver and what to do, and we have the same mindset," Sparks said. "We both know equipment inside and out from our previous experience, and are willing to go the extra mile for our customers, and to teach them. Teddy is up in the wee hours to assist customers in other countries when they need technical assistance. Optimal Vending Systems focuses on customization and customer service."

Sparks said Optimal Vending Systems hit the ground running when it launched last spring, propelled by interest from marketers who had already sought out Sanchez for his expertise at Jofemar, where he earned a reputation through his ability to customize solutions for them.

A company that pioneered the sale of cannabis products through vending machines worked with Sanchez while he was at Jofemar in order to incorporate age-verification and inventory-control technology into its equipment. That inspired Sanchez and Sparks to exhibit at the World Vapor Expo in Miami last summer, where they demonstrated how the sales of e-cigarettes and "vapes" can be controlled through machines equipped with age-verifying technology.

ATTENTION-GETTER

The duo also has carved out a niche in the tradeshow arena across several industries by using vending machines as marketing tools to drive traffic to exhibitors' booths, create brand awareness and generate a buzz.

"One machine can do what three or four people would at a trade show," Sparks explained. "The machines help control inventory by dispensing free giveaways, and they create social media hype."

One Optimal client is a major car company that is using vending machines as a centerpiece of its marketing to unveil new product lines at tradeshows.

"If a visitor to the machine tweets or posts to Instagram to promote the brand with a hashtag of the company name, they win a prize from the machine. And Teddy and I can help onsite with the promotion," Sparks explained. "Exhibitors get more likes and tweets and followers for their brands when those responses tie into visitors getting their free gifts. And they get the benefit of analytics and the ability to gather email addresses for future marketing initiatives."

SPECIAL DELIVERY: At World Vapor Expo in Miami, Michele Sparks and Teddy Sanchez show off Jofemar machine customized for Doral, FL-based cannabis product distributor Vapor X Lounge that controls patron and service personnel access via RFID cards and FOBs. Optimal Vending Systems is perfecting its high-security age-verification technology to meet or exceed the most stringent state and local regulations. 

Optimal also customized a machine for Adidas to sell its sneakers at special events, in conjunction with guest athletes who sign giveaway T-shirts.

Another Optimal customer is Farmer's Fridge, which sells fresh salads in glass jars through refrigerated vending machines in the Chicago-land market. Farmer's Fridge had 50 Jofemar machines in the field and wanted to rapidly ramp up its deployment to 200, so it asked Optimal to help scale the business.

Sanchez and Sparks helped Farmer's Fridge optimize and streamline its route and back-office procedures, which they say doubled its business over the past six months. That laid the groundwork for Farmer's Fridge to deploy more than 60 additional machines, and to stage its plans for steadily rolling out more.

Mall operators who want to replace traditional kiosks with vending machines are also among Optimal's customers.

"We're going into all kinds of industries to show how we can customize automatic retailing to fit their industries," said Sparks. "What sets us apart from other companies doing similar things is that we provide consulting and service.

Companies can buy customized machines for different specialized applications, but in most cases, they don't have a team to implement them. We'll come train their team, if needed, and hold their hands and help them grow as a team."

Optimal Vending Systems currently distributes Jofemar's machines. In order to offer a well-rounded array of equipment, features and price-points to their customers, Sparks and Sanchez also are working with select vending machine manufacturers overseas to tailor their equipment to the U.S. market.

They are currently finalizing plans with a manufacturer in China to bring its equipment to the U.S. "We're amazed what the manufacturer we're working with is willing to do to meet the demands of the U.S. market, and how open they are to our suggestions and quick to adapt their technology," Sparks said. "As we bring the new machines to market from China, with more to come as we establish more relationships overseas, we can walk the manufacturer through the options and keep pricing a la carte so they don't pay for features they don't need – just the best price-point and whatever they require to get to market."

Sparks emphasized that Sanchez's seven years of equipment manufacturing experience, coupled with her own success at running and optimizing her own route, bring a well-rounded skill set to benefit their customers

SINGLE SOURCE

"We get it, from A to Z, from being 'on the street' to the nuts and bolts of the machines and the software, and we take our customers all the way through the process, whatever their goal," Sparks commented. "We both really enjoy working with our customers, helping them grow and working to ensure their success; and we usually end up as friends outside of business."

Meanwhile, Sparks remains close to her operator roots. She still owns Prime Vending; an employee runs the route while Sparks pitches in remotely, and returns to West Virginia every four to six weeks to maintain her personal connection to the business and her customers.

"People are amazed that I have one employee who runs a 50-machine route," Sparks commented. "I tell operators and they say 'I have 10 people, teach me!' I show them how to prekit and preorder, how to train their employees, what software to use and how to use it."

Sparks emphasized that what sets Optimal Vending apart is its focus on customizing, consulting and customer service, and that the sky's the limit for new and established operators seeking new ways in which to apply automatic retailing.