Mathew Marsh, president of First Class Vending Inc. in Los Angeles, also questioned the way the survey was done. "I don't know that our customer is someone that goes online and fills out surveys," he said.
Marsh suspects the sample base did not reflect the vending customer base. Based on the finding that many respondents did not view vending as having a good value, he suspects that the sample might have been comprised of people who were more familiar with machines in public locations, such as hotels.
"Every location is so different," Marsh noted. He said it would have made more sense to isolate a group of B&I customers rather than mix customers of all different types of locations together.
NAMA officials maintain the sample base reflected the customer base.
"This study was Internet based, but the participants are part of a huge audience of specially selected Harris Internet panel members interviewed on average for 15 minutes," said NAMA's Mathews. "These are not simply people going to a website and taking a survey. The data was properly weighted to reflect geography and population."
Operators must balance variety and price
Jim English, general manager for vending at Masterfoods USA, which sponsored the study, said the findings were not surprising, but it nonetheless helps to have goals clarified. "Balancing the needs of consumers with those of vending operators is a big challenge in such a competitive industry," he noted. "Masterfoods has long been aware of the need to promote more product variety in vending. It's a matter of finding solutions that deliver against consumer needs while allowing operators to make a fair profit."
Several observers noted the survey confirmed the consumer perception that vend prices are higher than other prices. Many view this as an ongoing problem.
"You would think that over time that would change," said Cliff Whitehead, vice president of the vending division at Flowers Specialty Group. "It surprised me that that perception has not changed."
"Why doesn't the consumer get the value of the vending machine?" asked another manufacturer who did not wish to be identified.
This individual said it might be time for operators to start posting signs on bulletin boards comparing prices at the vending machine with the local convenience store. This would also address the need to direct consumers to the vending bank, which in many locations is not known to everyone on premises. "They (operators) should tell people on these same posters where the vending machines in the facility are located," he said.
The need for more point-of-sale promotions also poses a challenge, Flowers' Whitehead noted. He thinks that new technology will create some ways to enhance point-of-sale activity.
Michael Kasavana, Ph.D., the NAMA endowed professor at Michigan State University, said interactive touch screens could provide a solution to the need to provide more information about product ingredients and freshness at the point of sale. By enabling the customer the opportunity to "drill down" and retrieve information about a product, the consumer could glean information such as its expiration date, nutritional composition and additional information. Kasavana authored an article on touch screen technology for vending machines that appeared in the November issue of Automatic Merchandiser. "There's a lot that can be accomplished through two-way, bi-directional communication with a vending machine," he said. "Prices could be managed remotely, video files could be downloaded, and product files could be easily updated."
As far as educating consumers about guaranteed product delivery, Kasavana said one possible answer could be to highlight successful product delivery with an audible ringtone. Ringtones have become commonplace, and there is no shortage of available options. Sound could also serve to heighten the customer experience.
Kasavana said one of the biggest challenges facing technological advancement is the fact that a large portion of the industry has been reluctant to implement DEX and MDB, platforms necessary for remote machine monitoring and cashless vending. This lack of wide-scale adoption is likely attributable to a range of variables, not the least of which is an absence of a proven technology standard.