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Industry Veteran Responds To Article On Self Serve Retailing

Walter Reed, former public relations director for the National Automatic Merchandising Association, responded on March 7, 2011 to an article that appeared in The Chicago Tribune claiming that automated retailing would replace traditional retailers.

    Dear Alana Semuels,
    Your story in the March 7 Tribune about machines replacing retail employees brought back memories - and it triggered amusement as well.
    You see, I was an international vending machine industry expert, chief spokesman and international consultant for some 40 years (1958-2000). Over that time span stories like yours, often triggered by companies like AVT in your story, periodically announced that dispensing machines (then coin-operated, now even triggered via cell phones) would take over conventional retail functions.
    As chief spokesman of the US vending machine trade association during those decades I always tried to explain to the writers and their publications and to broadcast media that they had been hoodwinked by ambitious (and unrealistic) promoters - ALWAYS promising revolution but never succeeding. I must admit that my attempts were NEVER successful. I can guarantee you, from long experience that YOUR predictions also will not see the light of day.
    Allow me to explain: The earliest similar prediction came in the 1960's, announcing that Macy's NYC Department store on Herald Square was introducing vending machines for selling men's underwear (and would revolutionize retailing, of course). The experiment faded away, quietly.
    A few years later a German inventor touted the idea of encroaching on grocery stores and supermarkets with his new and shiny vending machine stores, operating 24/7 and selling everything one needed to cook and keep house. One such installation was made in Wiesbaden and touted in the USA. It never caught on, but a few of his descendants can still be seen in a few train and transit stations in central Europe (but you can count them with your 10 fingers). Soon thereafter Tenneco Oil Company touted the same devices and announced that they would soon be installed in filling stations all over the US. Only one was ever installed, in suburban Atlanta. Yes, I visited it - and the Wiesbaden installation too. What followed, however were hundreds of thousands conventional C-Stores, and they're still serving millions of drivers. End of the vending machine revolution.
    In the 1980's announcements like yours today began touting coin-operated French-fried potato vending machines. I counseled several international clients on that one (mostly to caution them) and I can assure you that McDonald's leaders were NOT quaking in their boots. These machines were shown regularly at vending industry trade shows here and abroad, but now they're practically all gone. Too many readily available McDonalds, Burger Kings and Irving's Hot Dog stores with better products took care of that. About the same time the future of automated grocery stores resurfaced because two had been installed in Japan (which also did not survive). More recently low-priced tech stuff was touted as becoming a trend in vending machines and I have frequently passed a lonesome one at Macy's in Old Orchard, yet have yet to see anyone buying from it.
    I think you can understand my skepticism. It was first triggered by vending industry history books which tell the story of an inventor who was predicting an automatic grocery store in Memphis in the 1930's!!!!. It too never become reality, long before my time. Honest. By the 1950's books and magazines were displayed and sold in a limited number of vending machines in some US cities amid predictions of the negative effect on conventional bookstores surfaced. That never happened either - not until Kindle arrived on the scene.
    I hate to disappoint you, but no retail employees need to worry about machines. Amazon, yes - but not vending machines.
    As you can see, you reached at least ONE reader.
    All best wishes,
    Walter Reed
    Wilmette IL
    (847) 251-7973