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Turning The Corner

Posted On: 10/8/2004

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The vending industry recognized a need for better public relations during the 1960s, when the full-line business was still very new, growing rapidly, apparently making a lot of money, and virtually unknown to the general public.

The National Automatic Merchandising Association and its state councils set out to educate the public about vending, and operators about the need for effective PR. The Illinois Automatic Merchandising Council was one of the most energetic and imaginative, organizing events like "Vending Weeks" in the state and its major cities.

Almost four decades later, IAMC has retained its commitment to communication, and it's getting results. Late in September, Chicago Sun-Times columnist Debra Pickett devoted one of her recurrent "Sunday Lunch With..." reports to the vending industry. Pickett, who is gaining an enviable reputation in journalistic circles, agreed to meet Colin Walsh of Coin-Café (Blue Island, IL), who chairs IAMC's Public Relations Committee, and Tom Whennen, Triple A Services (Chicago, IL), at one of Whennen's locations for lunch. Her account appeared in her paper's September 26 edition.

Pickett brought with her to the meeting no preconceived notions about vending, and she is an intelligent and sympathetic interviewer. What seems to have struck her about the operators was their insight into their customers' purchasing habits, and the variety of food items available through the machines.

Of course, the conversation turned to nutrition, obesity and vending. "We're trying to get the word out that we're not the scourge of the lunchroom," Whennen told Pickett. "You know, you don't go to the snack machine and instantly become obese."

To prove that point, she reported, Whennen and Walsh invited her to "a healthy, well-balanced three-course lunch, consisting entirely of vending machine foods." Her hosts explained that most vending operators reserve 15% to 20% of the space in their machines for "healthy (or, at least, healthier) foods, but that these items account for only about 1% of their sales.

"And, they say, when a machine offers only healthy choices, sales from that machine drop by 85%," she said in her report.

In a society that values the individual's right to choose, what consumers want determines what retailers will sell. Pickett reported Whennen's summary of this truism. "I think we all have to step back and remember [that] when you go to a snack machine, we don't call it a 'healthy alternatives' machine. We call it a snack machine," he pointed out. "A lot of that decision-making process is the individual's decision to eat in moderation and lead a healthy lifestyle." Experience has shown that the items permitted under the dietary guidelines announced by Chicago's public schools are things that kids won't buy, Whennen said.

Vending operators know what their customers will buy, Pickett reported. "Both Walsh and Whennen have been in the vending machine business a long time," she explained. "And when customers - typically offices and manufacturing sites , approach them about setting up a machine or two, they can predict, with uncanny accuracy, what employees at a particular spot will buy."

The Sun-Times columnist offered a lucid summary of the challenge operators face: their net profit is very low, and prepared food is not a money-making proposition in its own right, but a component in a product offering that enables operators to sell higher-profit items like snacks and beverages. Consumers have alternatives to vending machines: if they don't like what's available, or feel it's too expensive, they can buy a case of their favorite snack at their nearby wholesale club store and bring it to work with them.

We commend IAMC for its continual proactive approach to telling the vending industry's side of the story. And, if Debra Pickett is representative of the new generation of journalists, the Third Estate is undergoing a renaissance.

The best journalism not only gives the reader a better understanding of a current issue, but also can provide the future historian with a ser ies of snapshots of an era. We think such historians will find Pickett's "Sunday Lunch" with two veteran full-line vending operators in 2004 to be of value in understanding what was going on in the first decade of the 21st century.