Software Brings Big Change For College’s Vending

Northwest Missouri State University in Maryville, Mo. was able to more than double its vending sales by enabling its machines to accept campus ID cards and integrating vending into its foodservice management system last year. The school was dissatisfied with the quality of its previous vending service. Machines were often empty, selections were limited, and machines only accepted cash.

To improve the quality of vending service, the school discontinued contracts with two vending operators and transferred the responsibility to its onsite foodservice director. A key move was enabling machines to accept ID cards for payment and integrating the vending machines with the software system that manages other retail outlets, such as convenience stores and the manual foodservice. This enabled students, faculty and staff to use their meal plan cards for vending purchases.

“Our faculty, staff and students weren’t satisfied with the vending on campus,” said Jackie Elliott, vice president of student affairs. She said the school regularly surveys its 6,500 students about the vending service, and learned that machines were frequently empty. Students also wanted to be able to use their meal plan cards in the machines, and they wanted more product variety.

Elliott said the school realized the previous vending service providers were limited in their ability to address these issues due to the fact that the companies are not based in Marysville.

One reason the machines were often empty was the school periodically hosts events, resulting in inconsistent use of the vending machines. “We have peak highs and lows,” Elliott noted. It was difficult for the previous vending operators to keep the machines stocked.

Elliott said the vending providers would have been able to offer cashless capability, but she questioned whether they could integrate their cashless systems into the school’s meal plan. Students, faculty and staff carry ID cards that are used in the food court and at certain retail outlets.

The school decided it made sense to take the vending in-house and have Aramark, its foodservice manager, oversee the vending machines. Fortunately, the school enjoyed a good relationship with Aramark, Elliott said.

“We want to be a leading organization,” Elliott said. “Customers today want to have lots of options. We want to be functional, agile and flexible.”

Being able to use their ID cards in vending machines was important, Elliott said.

In order to bring the vending service inhouse, the school needed to buy vending equipment and have machines that could accept the campus ID card. They also changed the official responsibilities of the onsite foodservice director to include vending.

FOODSERVICE SOFTWARE PROVIDER STEPS FORWARD

The school relied on the advice of its foodservice management software provider, Atlanta, Ga.-based Horizon Software International (HSI). HSI offers a variety of point-of-service and back-end management systems, including inventory management, procurement, menu planning, nutrition analysis, and warehouse distribution.

HSI, in turn, worked with the Wittern Group, the vending equipment manufacturer, to provide vending machines with hardware that would integrate with the school’s foodservice management software system. The machines include 21 dedicated cold drink venders, 19 dedicated candy/snack venders, and nine combination cold drink/candy/snack venders. The machines were in place at the start of the 2008 fall semester. There were previously 62 machines; 45 dedicated cold drink and 17 dedicated candy/snack venders.

The Wittern Group was able to install the necessary hardware and software fairly quickly at its factory, thanks to its longstanding relationship with Vendnovation, a vending software supplier. The Wittern Group has worked with Vendnovation in the past on its industrial supply dispensing machines that also utilize remote machine monitoring.

In order for the machines to connect to the campus local areawide network (LAN) Ethernet, Ethernet jacks were installed near each machine. The machine can then communicate through a cable to the network application server. The machine’s identification reader transmits data via the Ethernet protocol to the point-of-sale database to obtain user authorization and student account verification.

Students can add credit to their prepaid accounts with either cash or credit cards. They can check their prepaid balances on the Ethernet or on the vending machine digital display screen.

“We wanted students to be able to use their meal plan cards in the machines as well as at the cash registers,” said Kelly Zimmerman, Aramark’s onsite director of vending and concessions. The vending machines are not located in the cafeterias, but in other areas in 25 different campus buildings.

The ability to use campus ID cards with magnetic strips was a major factor in improving sales. ID cards now account for more than 80 percent of all vend purchases.

“That’s why we’re so successful,” Zimmerman said. “Previously, you could not use your ID card in the vending or in the concessions.” With the new machines, students can use the same cards they use to buy meals in the cafeteria in the vending machines. Every full-time employee also has an ID card. They can use this card to buy from convenience stores, concession stands and foodservice.

The software allows both “inclining” and “declining” balance plans. The “inclining” balance plan is a prepaid plan that most resident students use. The individual’s account balance is automatically adjusted with every purchase. The “declining” balance plan works similar to a credit or debit card; the cardholder is billed periodically by the school. Most commuter students, staff and faculty have “declining” balance plans.

SALES SURPASS EXPECTATIONS

The school quickly surpassed its weekly $10,000 sales goal. In one week, sales hit the $30,000 mark.

Vending sales totaled $750,000 last year, more than doubling the 2007 figure, Zimmerman said.

“We really feel like our student satisfaction with vending has increased because of this feature,” Elliott said, regarding the use of ID cards. She said student surveys have verified greater satisfaction with the vending service.

More frequent service has been another reason for the sales increase. Most of the machines are now serviced daily. The previous vending operators only came once a week. “The machines were always empty,” Zimmerman said. Zimmerman is assisted by four part-time student workers who work three shifts during the week and one on the weekend.

Because the vending machines are now reporting all activity via the campuswide Ethernet, Zimmerman can monitor machine temperatures, in-machine inventory levels, and possible mechanical malfunctions. The HSI system has provided all of the benefits of remote machine monitoring. He said the software allows him to receive an email or cell phone alert when the machine inventory reaches a certain level, but he has not had use for this function due to the service frequency.

In order to keep machines stocked, inventory is warehoused on campus.

SOFTWARE GENERATES PICK LISTS

The HSI software also generates a product pick list based on machine par levels and historical sales. “It automatically updates every time an item is sold,” Zimmerman said.

The product mix is based on sales from the machines, the convenience stores and the manual foodservice, Zimmerman said. Product decisions are also based on input from student surveys.

Aramark was able to develop a nutrition rating system for the vending machines. A color coded marking system designates nutrition content.

HSI’s menu planning module was already in use in the convenience stores and the manual foodservice operation prior to installing the new vending machines. “That’s how we decided initially what (products) to put in the vending machines,” Zimmerman said.

“The vending machine is seen (by the software system) as another point of service,” observed John Tatham, HSI’s vending director. The vending machines do not accept credit or bank debit cards.

Jim Dillingham, president of Vend-ucation, a Goffston, N.H. vending consultant who specializes in school vending programs, said one challenge of incorporating vending machines with point-of-sale management software is for the system to verify the identity of the purchaser. In the case of Northwest Missouri State, the machines were integrated into the school’s Ethernet LAN.

Dillingham noted there are several point-of-sale management systems serving schools and institutions that could integrate vending machines, and the lack of industrywide standards among hardware providers for POS systems and vending payment mechanisms presents a challenge. “It’s not the easiest thing in the world to do,” Dillingham said.

For more information, contact:
Horizon Software International, 800-741-7100
Vendnovation, 425-454-3264
Vend-ucation, 603-774-2222
The Wittern Group, 866-657-7549

Meal tracking and vending help schools receive federal meal funds

Software systems that incorporate vending machines in foodservice management, similar to the one used by Northwest MIssouri State University, have enabled several secondary school systems to participate in the federal National School Lunch program and at the same time qualify for funds under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.

Vending machines are being used to identify students, authorize transactions, dispense healthy meals, chart nutritional consumption and compile data for compliance with the reimbursable meal program.

There are several options for vending machine-based student identification, including: pin pad readers, magnetic strip card readers, contactless card readers, biometric readers, and smart card readers.

Under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, a one-time appropriation of $100 million is available for equipment assistance to school food authorities participating in the federal National School Lunch Program.

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