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Standing Out

Posted On: 6/14/2009

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Vending, vending business, vending route, vending machine, coin-operated, coin-op, automatic retailing, coffee service, office coffee service, Tim Sanford, Vending Times

A recurrent theme in the industry dialogue is the value to a vending or coffee service operation of differentiating itself from its competitors. Operators recognized, half a century ago, that clean trucks, well-groomed uniformed personnel and an attractive building conveyed an impression of professionalism not only to clients, but to prospects, too. The more imaginative ones also looked for ways to keep their company names in the public eye through event sponsorships and modest, but ongoing, public relation efforts.

These measures have become commonplace, but they are still too often overlooked. It's not hard to understand why: Some old-line operators always have scorned what they regard as self-promoting puffery, and argue that excellent service and quality products speak for themselves. Indeed they do, but they only speak to existing customers -- and even their favorable opinion can be heightened by an effective program for establishing the company as a positive presence in the community.

Coffee service operators seem, on the whole, to be somewhat more concerned than vendors with standing out from the crowd. One reason for this is that an OCS company can develop a signature private-label product line that clients can get nowhere else. Vending companies never have been entirely successful at marketing their own proprietary brands, although some operations have become brands in their own right.

Full-line vendors with their own commissaries can use their food preparation capability as a marketing tool. Half a century ago, operators who wanted to sell food pretty much had to make it themselves; in most markets, there was no alternative source. Again, the more imaginative ones saw this as an opportunity, and not only developed some distinctive menu items, but also turned their central kitchens into showplaces that prospective clients could visit. While the increasing variety and widespread appeal of convenience food increasingly allows vendors to assemble a good food program without preparing anything at all, many vending companies continue to prize the marketing power of a commissary and a distinctive menu.

And even a fairly modest food preparation facility presents some opportunities. A great many years ago, we interviewed an operator in California. He mentioned that a serving of carrot sticks, wrapped in cling film and sold through his refrigerated food machines, was one of his most popular items. We asked him how he had come to think of selling carrot sticks.

He replied that it had not been planned. His commissary manager had received far too many carrots as a result of an error in filling out the purchase order. "So we were knee-deep in raw carrots," he recalled. "And somebody said, 'I have an idea ...'"

The current trend in "healthy" dining is toward increased consumption of fruits and vegetables. Nutritionists have been advocating this for decades, and it certainly is one of the more sensible recommendations to come out of the contemporary concern over diet and health. But it is not easy for consumers away from home to find single servings of these things in a format that's easy to handle and consume.

For the past half-century or more, there have been periodic attempts to come up with a fresh fruit machine. There have been some interesting, workable designs; and, of course, "fruit and can adapters" long have been available to hold and display fruit in all-purpose food machines. Vegetables can be more challenging, but such things as the carrot sticks described above (and celery sticks, plain or stuffed with cheese or peanut butter) would seem to possess equally wide appeal. Items of this sort don't require complicated packaging and are easy to transport and handle on a food route.

A number of developments that have occurred over the past 10 or 15 years suggest that a gap opened between "four-C" and food vending, back during the full-line revolution, and that it is becoming feasible to fill that gap profitably. One of these is the emergence of the combination food/cold drink vender; another is the rapid growth of milk beverages in vending, which has brought one of the first widely popular vended beverages back into prominence. There may be a category of chilled snacks that would find wide favor with vending patrons, but that do not require quite the same rigorous storage, handling and dating procedures as (say) a hamburger does.

We think it would be worthwhile to have a conversation with produce marketing boards and local farmers to see what's available. If successful, a vending program like this would furnish ample material for publicity, and might prove to be an effective way to build sales and company image at the same time.

There also may be an opportunity for the food processing industry to benefit by devoting more thought to single-serve convenience packages of fruit and vegetables, but the industry need not wait. It might not work everywhere, but it would accelerate vending's move toward the mainstream.