Customized Machine Fronts and Area Treatments Gain Favor as Selling Tools

Take a good look at your break areas. Do they look like fun places to visit? Sometimes a bank of plain, dark machines in a room with vinyl floors, sourrounded by laminated counters and metal-framed furniture aren't very exciting. Especially if the people working there have to visit it every day.

It doesn't have to be this way. For the employee, an obvious escape is to go to McDonald's or 7-Eleven; where there is always something new to see, and the meal areas often are colorful, inviting and sometimes even entertaining.

On the other hand, the vending machine break area can be fun, too. Who says the machines can't have any character? That the furniture has to be hard and drab? That the employee eating area has to be an afterthought?

Design processes make strides

Break room d?cor specialists are taking advantage of new graphic design processes to enhance the aesthetic appeal of employee break areas. Vending machines in particular are beginning to come alive, thanks to the efforts of progressive graphic specialists and vending operators willing to use their services.

In October of 1998, Automatic Merchandiser predicted a new day was dawning in an editorial titled, "Canteen wires the industry for change." That column noted that Canteen Vending Service's Market Central marked a new beginning for vending. One of the most dramatic elements of Market Central was a series of machine design concepts, all of which featured visual designs that in 1998 were nothing short of revolutionary. The colorful designs were made of polycarbonate that fit over the top of the machines. The design covered the entire flat surface of the machine. Panel headers, including signs cut into decorative shapes, gave added visual effect.

Design movement gains momentum

Six years later, the design movement is gaining momentum as more and more operators recognize the need to dress up their machines with more exciting graphics, along with the machine environments.

"Operators must ask themselves, what experiences can their customers get from a black box placed in a corner with no compelling message?" asked Jon Ford, president, All State Manufacturing Inc., whose company produces customized area treatments. "By using d?cor, customized door fronts, signage, customized floor mats, and other customer unique offerings, operators can change the view of their service from a commoditized service to a premium service."

Competition drives the change

It would be incorrect to say that all vending operators ignored the visual appeal of machines and break area before 1998. From the very beginning, some operators designed wood panels and vinyl overlays for machine fronts, and gave similar attention to the comfort and appearance of furniture and condiment stands. But these operators were the exception and not the rule.

Today, more operators are aware of the importance of aesthetics. Competition is pushing the envelope, and new graphic design technologies are bringing more products to the market.

Premier Services Inc., based in Denver, Colo., began offering customized treatments two years ago to compete against Canteen. In many cases, owner George Yost simply has a carpenter attach a plastic film with the account's logo on a central panel that hangs over a header atop the machine. In some cases, he places the logo over a piece of plastic, then installs track lighting behind it.

Yost offers some accounts standard area treatments from C. Robert Hutchinson Co. as well.

The process is simpler than ever

He has treated about 20 locations in the last two years, and rarely spends over $1,000 per site. "You can really jazz it up a lot," Yost said. "From a construction standpoint, there's really nothing complicated about area treatments."

Custom Food Group, a multistate vending operation based in Dallas, Texas, offers customized machine fronts and area treatments as a sales tool for many locations, noted Don Winn, corporate vice president. The company has customized the break areas in many of its accounts. This includes precut plastic panels with customer logos on the front of the machines, supplied by TUFFRONTS.

Custom Food Group also uses removable headers over its machines supplied by both All State Manufacturing Inc. and Vendors Exchange International Inc. The headers are made of plastic and can change the look of the machine to enhance a new menu offering, a new promotion, or a new season of the year.

Winn is grateful for the fact that equipment suppliers have come forward with area treatment services, since he finds it easier to rely on professionals than developing these materials in-house.

It wasn't long ago that Custom Food Group used to cut laminate surfaces in its own shop to place over its machines. This is a process he'd rather not deal with. "There were a few fingers lost because of that," Winn recalled.

Precut panels make a difference

Nowadays, Winn rarely uses any vinyl on his machines. A turning point came two years ago when he first came across TUFFRONTS at a trade show. TUFFRONTS' precut plastic panels are more resistant to scratches, are easier to clean, show no bubbles, and are much easier to install on the machine than vinyl contact paper. "It's a lot thicker and a lot more durable," he said.

The precut panels can be ordered and shipped fast enough to present a prospect a new proposal. Winn can call TUFFRONTS and have a mock-up done within 30 minutes. This has been a major competitive advantage for the company. "He (Robert Liva, president of TUFFRONTS) can mock it up within 30 minutes and it's awesome," Winn said.

Jay Teitelbaum, general manager at 24seven Vending Inc., formerly Adolph's Vending Service Inc. in Dallas, Texas, also finds the precut plastic fronts a big improvement over the traditional vinyl contact paper. "It's much easier," Teitelbaum said. "It's already precut to fit and you don't end up with the air bubbles you get with the vinyl. I also think it holds up a lot better."

Machine fronts can be outsourced

Liva, himself a former vending operator, has developed a complete outsource service for customizing machine fronts. Operators do not need to do any design work on their own. Liva has two full-time graphic designers that enable him to respond to operator requests fairly quickly. In some cases, they download designs from websites to come up with winning ideas for machine graphics.

Digital mock-ups can be sent as PDFs to TUFFRONTS via e-mail. The precut panels can be installed on the machines in less than 30 minutes, as opposed to the four to five hours it takes to remove and replace vinyl. How long it takes to install the panels will vary based on the operator's skill level.

"When you're working with a decal, it's very cumbersome to put it on a vinyl surface unless you really know what you're doing," Liva said. More importantly, the durability will always be a problem. "The fronts of the vending machines take an awful lot of abuse."

Liva started his service on a part-time basis in 2003 after becoming frustrated with vinyl's lack of durability. He tested materials for strength and exposed them to different temperatures. He realized that the plastic sheets that many plastic supply houses use are not the right thickness for vending machines.

"We actually custom build our own tooling for this industry," Liva said. He builds his own presses, dyes, heating tables and form tables. The images are printed on the panels using an ultraviolet printer.

"All of our panels are custom made for the vending industry," Liva said. "We're a one-stop shop. You can throw anything at us."

"This gives the vendor the choice to compete with Canteen's Market Central," he noted. "Custom graphics is a way to capture market share."

"Since the prospect has 'ownership' in choosing the design for the vending equipment, now you have become a 'partner' to his or her organization, not just another supplier of vending services," said Scott Larkin, a longtime vending veteran now representing D.I. Graphics Inc.

More contemporary designs available

U-Select-It Corp. came out with customized machine fronts four years ago when it introduced its Endeavor Series. This line features a more contemporary design than previous models. The design is printed on a flat, polycarbonate surface that covers the whole front of the machine.

One purpose of the Endeavor Series was to offer operators the ability to customize the machines for customers, noted Mike McGillis, marketing and graphics director at U-Select-It Corp. As long as the customer can provide artwork in digital form or on an 8- by 10-inch board with 300 dots per inch, U-Select-It can recreate it and print it on polycarbonate.

The design is either screen printed or digitally printed onto a removable machine front, McGillis said. The operator can remove the machine front and send it to USI, or have USI send the machine front to be installed by the operator at the location. "If at all possible, we like to assemble them here (at company headquarters in Des Moines, Ia.) so we know they are up to standard," he said.

A typical beverage machine would cost between $335 to $400 to customize, McGillis said.

Digital formats revolutionize printing

"The printing industry is going to a digital format," said Larkin at D.I. Graphics Inc. "We can do a lot smaller quantities than with screen printing. The advent of digital printing capabilities and equipment has allowed for more customized small volume projects that were prohibitively expensive with the screen printing processes of the past."

He noted that it is more economical now for graphic printers to do smaller volume quantities of decals, logos and sign facings than before, due to the new digital technology. Films and setup costs made customized smaller volume projects prohibitively expensive and less flexible with the screen printing processes of the past.

"If you're a sales rep for an operator, what makes you different?" Larkin asked rhetorically. "We've always been a brown, black and gray industry."

Strong selling tool

Hampton Roads Vending & Food Service Inc., based in Hampton, Va., has found customized area treatment a strong competitive tool against the nationals, which he said tend to use their own proprietary designs in all locations, noted Bruce Myers, company owner. "We do the fa?ade the way the customer wants it," he said.

To be sure, d?cor work adds to the operator's upfront investment in the account. And operators have to recover their investment.

Vic Pemberton, president of GPL Food Services Inc., Bainbridge, Ga., said he makes sure the customer understands that he needs to be compensated for his investment. If he's asked to leave the account before a certain time period, he expects to receive a certain amount of compensation for the design work. Pemberton has been offering customized area treatments now for two years, and "so far, we haven't been asked to leave," he said.

Consider return on investment

Pemberton has enhanced the serving areas for about 15 to 20 percent of his customers, but these customers represent about 60 to 65 percent of his total sales.

"It's a make or break on your big ones," he said "You can't justify spending $2,500 in an area that has a snack and drink machine."

Pemberton usually does his own sketches for the vending areas, then sends them to C. Roberton Hutchinson Inc., another vending machine design specialist.

"We (as an industry) don't do enough to market," Pemberton said.

CL Swanson Corp., the Madison, Wis.-based vending/foodservice operation serving a 10-state area, also limits its area treatment work to larger accounts, noted Randy Munn, director of sales and marketing. The company uses the services of Axis Designs & Architectural Millwork Inc. and Vendors Exchange International Inc.

Enhance the customer's identity

"For the right size account and the right size environment, there is no question that having some kind of area treatment is a more inviting environment," Munn said. "In many of our manufacturing environments, people have a short time for lunch. You have to make that break period as relaxing as possible. If it's a refreshing environment, they'll be more productive in the afternoon."

Most of the customized area treatments today are tailored to enhance the account, as opposed to promoting the operator's corporate identity. Some observers think that more operators should consider using machine fronts and area treatments to build their own brand identity. Machine fronts, headers and enclosures can reinforce the messages that the operator has on his trucks and his stationery.

"It gives a little bit of brand appeal and you start recognizing that's ABC Vending there," noted Bobby Hull, director of sales at Fixtur-World Inc, which designs headers and enclosures for vending banks. Fixtur-World offers both standard designs and custom products.

Enhance the operator's identity

Enhancing brand identity was one of the purposes of Canteen's Market Central, which many point to as a driving competitive force in enhancing area treatments. Canteen's national competitors, ARAMARK Refreshment Services Inc. and Sodexho Services Inc., have their own in-house area treatment concepts as well.

"It has been a very good selling tool," said Jerry Scott, general manager at Canteen Coastal Vending Inc., a Canteen franchise in Oxnard, Calif. "It's one of the best things we've done. It has the logos on the trucks. It's strong brand equity."

Customers notice the difference

In one case, Scott said a customer liked the Canteen "Legends" design, which features warm light colors and is targeted to offices, so much that they asked the location manager to change the furniture to match the vending machine. "They do make an impact," Scott said.

Atlas Food Systems, based in Greenville, S.C., uses both standard designs and custom approaches for break rooms, noted Alex Kiriakides III, company president. Like most operators, he offers design work to an account if he thinks it's going to make a difference in winning the account, and if it can be profitable with the added expense.

One benefit of standard designs is they cost less. Robert Hutchinson, a former vending operator who now makes area treatments, said a standard machine front can run $125 to $130 while a standard header will be $1,000 to $1,500. A custom treated area can easily reach a cost of $5,000.

Wooden enclosures upgrade decor

Hutchinson offers a variety of standard d?cor packages. These include lighted headers with round columns separating the machines and a raised center section for microwave counter. Standard packages include a header with a graphic on it and vinyl lettering. The headers come in laminates and melamine finishes.

Hutchinson also offers wooden enclosures, which he calls designer kiosks. These also feature graphics, and are in standard designs as well as customized.

Manufacturers update their standard designs periodically.

Axis Designs & Architectural Millworks, a woodworking laminate shop that specializes in break rooms and cafeterias, comes out with new standard designs about twice a year, but Bear Wegener, company owner, sees a bigger future in location-tailored designs. "We let the account be involved with the color selection," he said.

Wegener believes vinyl coat paper is simple enough for operators to work with. The operator only needs to provide the machine dimensions and layout, and he can print the design on a roll and send it to the operator. Anyone who has resurfaced the front of a machine before can put the roll on the machine.

Brent Garson, president of Vendors Exchange International Inc., said area treatment allows an operator to change the conversation with the customer to improving the whole vending experience.

An operator offering area treatment has something to offer besides the traditional inducements of commission, pricing or other incentive, he said.

"It raises the bar. It's a low-cost way to set yourself apart," Garson said. "It makes it more difficult for a competitor to come in and knock you out of the location. The effective use of it helps operators win business and keep accounts longer."

Garson said the cost should be viewed in relation to the other perks the operator might offer to win the business, or in relation to the equipment itself. "Relatively speaking, it is a modest amount of money for a major, positive impact on the space."

As printing technology improves, vending operators can expect even more options for dressing up their customers' machines and the break room.

"Today, consumers need not rely on standardized products to meet their specific needs," noted Ford of All State Manufacturing. "As consumers come to enjoy customized services and products in some area of their lives, at prices they are willing to pay, they begin to expect them in other areas as well."

For more information, contact:

All State Manufacturing Inc., 812-466-2276
Axis Designs & Architectural Millworks Inc., 800-356-4596
C. Robert Hutchinson Co., 804-561-4844
D.I. Graphics Inc., 262-617-0221
Fixtur-World, 800-634-9887
TUFFRONTS, 866-406-1989
U-Select-It Corp., 800-323-8792
Vendors Exchange International Inc., 800-321-2311