Necessity, according to the proverb, is the mother of invention.
In the automatic merchandising industry, veterans are realizing the need to adopt new tools and business models to address new business realities.
Many veteran operators are tired of hearing about these "new business realities" — fewer viable locations, more competition and rising costs — but some are actually doing some things about them.
Piedmont Vending, a large vending/foodservice/OCS operation based in Hickory, N.C., took a severe hit in 2000 when the textile, furniture and telecommunications employers accelerated their outsourcing to save costs. The local unemployment rate approached double digits, forcing the company to consolidate routes and reduce payroll.
The company, which traces its roots to 1945, had established itself as a market leader by mastering the basics of customer service, using the motto: "clean, merchandised and working." But as business conditions became increasingly difficult, management became less certain that the traditional strategies would guarantee future success.
Fortunately, a new and visionary leader was at the helm, with a keen eye on technology.
Technology provides hope
Like many people raised in vending families, Aaron Speagle wasn't sure that the industry offered him his best opportunity when he first considered his career choices in the early 1990s.
Then in his early 20s, Speagle had earned a degree in engineering and felt that other industries might be more promising than automatic merchandising.
But Speagle also realized from attending conventions and talking with other vending executives that emerging technologies offered exciting possibilities for the next generation of vending operators. He wanted to be a part of it.
The company started in 1945, when a group of investors including Paul Speagle, Aaron's grandfather, purchased the Spur Bottling Co. in Hickory, N.C. It expanded into full-line vending in the 1960s, and in 1967, sold its bottling operation and focused on vending in its 25,000-square-foot building in Hickory.
Paul Speagle Jr. ("Rick") and his brother, John, purchased the vending division of the North Wilkesboro Coca-Cola Bottling Co. in 1986 and the vending division of Dermox, Inc. in October 1992.
The company expanded into the Charlotte/Gastonia market with the purchase of Crown Vending Co. in 1995 and Crisp Vending in 1997. In 1998, Piedmont Vending purchased Charlotte Vending Service, which served the Charlotte/Mecklenburg area.
Aaron Speagle, now 36, is only sure about one thing: he never has a dull day. Keeping on top of new tools to improve customer service, providing new operating efficiencies and maintaining a capable team have proven to be more than a full-time job.
A dedicated student of technology
The soft spoken and reserved Speagle has emerged as one of the most knowledgeable operators on several new technologies that hold promise for automatic merchandising.
At the 2005 National Automatic Merchandising Association Expo in Atlanta, Ga., Speagle was on hand at the Freedom Shopping booth, fielding questions from operators who were intrigued by the self-serve kiosk that uses radio frequency identification (RFID) technology. As the first operator in the country to place the device, Speagle has consulted with operators all over the country about its capabilities.
The Freedom Shopping kiosk is only one of several technologies that have created new possibilities for automatic merchandising, however. Being open to new concepts has required an open mind and a willingness to take risks, not all of which have proved fruitful.
Coin-op retrofits offered the possibility of providing fountain beverage machines in locations not large enough to support manual foodservice. Fountain drink machines are still popular in many accounts, despite the beverage industry's aggressive stance with PET bottles.