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
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
- 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