We live in a marketing intensive world today. Everywhere we go, we are deluged with messages to buy. According to USA Today, on average, we are exposed to 3,500 to 5,000 marketing messages a day – up from 500 to 2,000 in the 1970s. It's not just television ads. Now retailers have become very active with in-store merchandising to influence shoppers to buy. What's more, they are using leading-edge technology to make these messages stronger.
Most of us know these messages are having an impact on our customers. The convenience stores are luring them in for coffee on the way to work. The drug stores are offering them sandwiches for lunch as they stop in to pick up their prescriptions.
We know that we need to respond to these competing channels. And it's a tough challenge.
It helps to keep in mind that your primary focus never changes: your customer. After all, it does no good to outsmart the competition if you don't make the sale to serve your customer.
But it just so happens that some of our retail competitors are doing a better job of serving our customers than we are.
What is it that Starbucks, Dunkin' Donuts and McDonald's offer that keeps the customer coming back? Is the quality of their products so much better? Is the price value so much better? For many of you, the answer is "no."
But what these companies have done is they've conditioned the customer to expect a certain shopping experience, if not necessarily a certain product.
A guaranteed shopping experience
There is no better example of this than Starbucks, a company that has had major influence on the coffee industry. It wasn't long ago that coffee was a dying business. How did one company turn around an entire industry? By creating a new experience.
Howard Schultz, chairman of Starbucks, has noted that an important mission for a retailer is to improve the customer's experience. His company has taken many measures to do this over the years. To paraphrase Schultz at last year's Starbucks' shareholders meeting, "The Starbucks brand … has been developed quintessentially by (the customer) experience."
Is there anything special, unique and memorable about the vend purchasing experience? It's fast, it's easy, and it's a good value. But according to the Harris Interactive consumer survey released at the recent National Automatic Merchandising Association Expo, most of our customers aren't seeing it that way. There is a lot of work to be done to make the vend purchasing experience more appreciated.
Retail: survival of the fittest
Our industry isn't alone in facing this challenge. Supermarkets are losing customers to club stores, drug stores, fast feeders, c-stores and specialty retailers – the retail formats that make shopping easier – and deliver a better experience for the shopper.
Peter Lynch, CEO of Winn Dixie, recently observed that consumers don't shop the center aisles like they used to in the supermarkets. Because the aisles haven't changed in 30 years. There's a message here for the vending industry.
Has the vending bank changed dramatically in the last 20 years? Those of us in the industry might think our offerings have changed, but do our customers think so?
What are successful retailers doing that the less successful ones are not doing? Visit a Wegmans Food Markets or a Whole Foods Market. They don't have the lowest supermarket prices, but they do have high quality meal solutions and produce, and their in-store merchandising displays are outstanding.
It really is an interesting shopping experience at Wegmans or Whole Foods. Your senses – sight, smell and taste – are all stimulated while you walk through the store. It's like there's a new discovery around every corner – every time you shop there.
How do you think your customers feel about your vending bank?
Is there anything memorable about vending merchandise and the way it's merchandised? As a vending operator, are you focused primarily on getting the best deal you can from your suppliers? Perhaps your customers will be better served if you press suppliers to come up with new and improved products and more interesting merchandising ideas. That might be the way to get past the need to worry as much about price.