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Sell The Sizzle, Talk Up The Steak

Posted On: 8/26/2010

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vending, vending machine, vending machine operator, Tim Sanford, vending times, vending news, automatic retailing, vending technology, OCS, office coffee service

A recurrent theme in the industry conversation over the past four decades (at least) has been: "The operator is his own worst enemy." We've heard that charge leveled against everyone from competitors who offer excessive commissions to stick-in-the-mud vendors who resist new technology.

We doubt that vending is the only industry in which this sentiment is expressed. One might not get much argument to the allegation that "the airlines are their own worst enemies," "the medical profession is its own worst enemy," and so on.

This sometimes is unintelligent competition, as in the case of the unrealistic commission offers cited above. We also can recall full-line operators who had adopted modular quick-service manual foodservice systems, at the peak of the full-line revolution, and who marketed them as a great improvement over the old-fashioned refrigerated food machines run by their competitors. The difficulty about that approach is that, if the location's workforce changed in a way that made the manual service unprofitable, it could be awkward to go back in to argue for replacing it with cold food venders.

Later, when the Cup Coalition was waging its long fight to preserve postmix cold beverage vending, we remember a well-respected operator who joined after experiencing an epiphany in a parking lot. He reported that he had just won a contract by making a compelling sales pitch, which included the offer of a bright, modern canned-drink machine in place of the old-fashioned cold cup vender placed by the previous operator. "It suddenly occurred to me that I had pledged to replace a high-margin machine that finished the drink and returned most of the profit to the operator with a high-gross, low-margin one that returned most of the profit to the bottler. So I called a sales meeting and said, 'We're not going to do that any more."

Coffee service operators similarly have told sad stories of emphasizing the benefits of expensive automatic brewers as replacements for economical pourover machines, to their subsequent disadvantage. And it became a truism in OCS sales circles that it is a bad idea to disparage the equipment in a prospect's location, whether it is run by another operator or by the location itself. At a minimum, doing that implies that the decision-maker is stupid. It is preferable to praise that equipment -- faintly: "That was a great brewer, a decade ago. But let me show you something newer, with some real advantages..." or, "That is a very well-designed home brewer; I've got one in my kitchen, and I'm very pleased with it. But it isn't commercially listed, so if some accident causes it to overheat and cause a fire, you may have a problem with your insurance. Let me show you a commercial brewer..."

We rehash all of this because the industry is entering a period in which technology is going to give operators a number of new options for differentiating themselves from their competitors. There is a general consensus that careful, intelligent adoption of new payment, data communications, warehouse automation and management information systems can give an operation a real competitive edge. We think it's important to pay some attention to the nature of this competitive advantage, and to better and worse ways of pursuing it.

First, a principal benefit of making appropriate use of such advances as remote machine monitoring, route order prepacking and computerized schedule optimization is that these things can make the company more profitable, so it can provide better service. This is something that most accounts can understand.

But second, when explaining the benefits of putting something new into the breakroom, it is a very good idea to speak well of whatever it is you are about to replace. This is not only prudent, but it is valuable in bolstering the image of the industry.

Forty years ago, an executive of a then-powerful regional operation was famous for his vigorous and prolonged campaign to persuade everyone that vending was not a second-best alternative to traditional retailing, but rather, a different and better way to sell things. He argued that hot drink venders should not carry front-panel graphics depicting china cups and silver coffee-pots, because the machine dispensed a hygienic disposable cup and filled it with a freshly brewed portion of coffee. He called on suppliers to design their packaging to read right in a vending machine display. Above all, he urged his fellows to take pride in forming the vanguard of retailing, and never to adopt an apologetic, almost-as-good posture.

We think he, and less vocal successors who have carried his fight forward, have made a difference. And vending has moved steadily toward the retailing mainstream, so many of the features that distinguished it in 1967 are much less prominent (some would say "annoying") today.

Still, vending is distinctive, and vending operators today inherit and build on a proud tradition. Everyone should remember that, and emphasize what they do well. To paraphrase Pres. Reagan, "Thou shalt not speak ill of a vending machine."