Up And Running

Posted On: 8/6/2005

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Every industry, and every profession, maintains a kind of ongoing conversation among its members. The topics tend to remain the same but, at any moment, some have moved up to the foreground while others have receded. The foreground is where immediate threats and promises reside.

At present, the conversation seems to be centered on management tools, often developed by rethinking an old concept and applying new technology to it, and on health. "Health" has meant everything from safe water to electrical safety; at the moment, it involves nutrition. Whatever the question of the day, there is enough threat and promise in the foreground to keep everyone busy and alert.

At the risk of violating the prudent warning about sleeping dogs, we'd like to bring an old topic back to the top of the stack. That topic, broadly, is the effect that the vending machine has on the prospective customer. It provoked a lot of discussion during the full-line vending boom, 40 years ago, and culminated in the approach (and the slogan) "Clean, Filled and Working." Coined by two innovative operators in Indiana, it was picked up by the National Automatic Merchandising Association, and it never has been quite forgotten.

Still, many vendors today do not remember the urgency with which industry leaders called on their peers to install coin mechanisms that held the patron's money in escrow until the vend was made; to post a telephone number that a customer could call to report a failure and request a refund; to make sure their drivers were cleaning the machines adequately and replacing burnt-out lamps; and so on and on. Today's equipment is a great deal more reliable and easier to service than the pioneering designs of the 1960s, and it is understandable that operators today expect it to work well enough, nearly all the time, unless it is vandalized.

The challenge, though, is to see the vending machine as the customer sees it. While steady progress in coin and bill validation, and the rapid adoption of sense-and-feedback systems to verify that the vend was made, have taken the edge off many of the old complaints about "one-armed bandits," it remains true that anything accessible to large numbers of people and offering openings to the outside world is not always going to work properly. Operators know all the things that can go wrong, and may take quiet satisfaction in preventing most of them from happening. The general public doesn't have this informed view, and just wants the machines to work, every single time.

We need to keep in mind that returning the customer's money in case of failure is only half the battle. It's important, but from the purchaser's perspective, it is not enough. If the product was not delivered, the operation was not successful.

The vending industry always has known that "downtime can kill you," that an out-of-order machine is not making the sales needed to produce a return on the investment in it. They also know that frequent breakdowns annoy locations, who often cite undependable service as a prime reason for wanting to change operators. But the strategic cost is even steeper.

In the past, informal surveys of vending patrons suggested that simple lack of confidence in vending machines was a major reason for not buying things from them. It was argued, eloquently, that a machine on which someone has taped a handwritten "out of order" sign is not only failing to generate any revenue, but also is sending a negative message about the reliability of any nearby vending machines - indeed, about vending machines in general.

As vending finds more applications in the retailing mainstream, and so must handle a wide range of merchandise at prices far higher than the old blue-collar-based business could have imagined, confidence in vending machines becomes more and more important. All the old correctives , fast dispatch of well-trained technicians, good records of service calls and their dispositions, effective preventive maintenance programs, selection of machines and components on the basis of reliability and durability , remain important, and new ones (like telemetry) deserve study.

Most important, though, is management's ability to communicate its insistence on equipment that works right, all the time. Performance will never be perfect, but perfection has to be the goal.