Vending Machines Are "So Yesterday"

Canadian Vending & Office Coffee Service Magazine - April 2003

Virtual Vending Salesmen

By Stella Yoon  

How did I fall in love with these virtual vending salesmen? "Pardon me? You mean you love more than one salesman?" I'm asked. Why not? I am talking about the more than 20 million of these virtual vending salesmen in the world. I love and admire them with a great deal of passion.

Please don't call them vending machines--that's so yesterday. It's time to appreciate, respect, and promote their status to at least "virtual humans" and

Virtual vending entrepreneurs... are likely to be the driving force in steering the bandwagon of innovation and changes

treat them accordingly--simply because they deserve it! And please don't call them Al (artificial intelligence), since their customers do not care about intelligence, whether high or low, artificial or not. What they care about is the service level and products that these virtual vending salesmen are marketing and selling.

I think back--five years back--to the first thought which propelled us at cStar to apply our wireless technology to so-called vending machines. This was even before analyzing the vending market and figuring out the return on investment.

Why vending machines, out of the 25 billion machines in the world, all of which need to be networked to increase their operational efficiency for the corporate world's bottom line?

We, the cStar team members, were very excited about the notion of taking the first step to humanize vending machines by providing them with communication capabilities without telephone wires.

Talk about a multi-tasking human role. Their job description says they are to:

  • Perform full sales duties 24/7 each and every day of the year (no single minute off duty)
  • Perform marketing activities by wearing printed brand names or company logos
  • Act as inventory storage
  • Perform as cashier
  • Maintain a databank of sales history, customer preferences. Cash history, etc.
  • Act as a customer relationship manager
  • Disclaimer: May (without hard feelings) become an occasional victim of customers' anger mis-management due to coin jams, sold-outs, or malfunctions!

It's quite an overwhelming job description, which cannot possibly be performed by any human or other machine. Obviously, our virtual vending salesmen have been performing superbly by reaching over $40 billion US in annual sales in North America alone.

In the very early stage when our team was learning about the actual process of vending route management and distribution, we realized how challenging the process had been for both virtual vending salesmen and their route drivers, the real humans. These drivers have to park their trucks in busy downtown areas with many highrise buildings, wait for elevators to take them to each floor to their virtual vending salesmen to review the inventory status, write this information down, and then go down all the way back to the truck to bring the noted amount of sodas or snacks in their trolley back to their virtual vending salesmen and collect cash from them. Then it's back to the truck, and off to the next building to do the same.

With wireless technology installed in each vending machine and route vehicle, drivers are able to collect vending machine data wirelessly while driving along a specific route. Instant data retrieval provides the driver with inventory information before physically visiting each machine, eliminating service review time, saving stops, time and stock-outs. The data can be downloaded to a backend system once the driver returns to his head office.

We have seen how proudly the route drivers can utilize these so-called high-tech IT (information technology) gadgets and how surprised they are when they can finish a full day's service in a half-day. We have seen route drivers become IT managers in actual operational zones. And we now realize how effectively these handheld computers (or personal digital assistants) could be used among route drivers.

A few companies came and went with the same vision that we had--and still have--the vision to provide our customers with a communication tool, so machines can communicate with the service/route personnel or directly with the corporate depots. This achieves a great deal of operational efficiency and is an example of superb customer relationship management in action.

Without a radical change in the traditional vending and OCS industries' thinking, no high-tech or IT pitch will empower these virtual vending salesmen to be all they're capable of being. Our incumbent virtual vending salesmen may still stay in the game, but they will be fighting a losing battle with the emerging generation of aggressive virtual vending entrepreneurs. These up-and-coming players will be better equipped to provide cashless payment options (wireless credit cards and/or cell phone payment), real-time communication and monitoring, and entertaining marketing (interactive billboards).

These emerging virtual vending entrepreneurs - especially nontraditional vending operators with much higher ticket items - are likely to be the driving force in steering the bandwagon of innovation and change.