Vending’s interactive future will arrive, but when?

Those of you who attended the National Automatic Merchandising Association (NAMA) OneShow got a glimpse of what future vending machines will look like. The show featured exciting video touchscreens that display nutrition information and promotional videos. Some machines allow consumers to engage in social media. NAMA, as if taking its cue from these displays, announced an industry growth strategy designed to appeal to Generation Y, which is comfortable with technology and generally holds a more favorable view of vending than other consumer audiences.

As exciting as this future will be, we still face a big question: how long will it take us to get there? The Automatic Merchandiser State of the Vending Industry Report (beginning on page 16) notes that investment in technology continues to move at a snail’s pace. Unless the rate of investment picks up, NAMA’s industry growth strategy won’t accomplish much in the near term.

Another hindrance is the lack of qualified information technology personnel attracted to the vending industry to implement the new technology.

A reviving economy will encourage more operators to make these investments. But as our State of the Industry Report notes, the operating environment remains very challenging. Operators saw some improvement in 2010, but the nation remains stuck in a stubborn recession.

One cause for hope is that both of the cola giants have shown new interest in vending technology. Both have signaled an interest in supporting machines equipped with cashless readers and/or wireless reporting.

Another encouraging sign has been the growth of self checkout markets. The OneShow featured three self checkout systems on the show floor.

Self checkout markets create a new customer experience. Contributing editor Allen Weintraub notes in his article on page 40 that these systems largely sell themselves to consumers.

Self checkout markets are not new. But two things can now be said for certain: 1) They have attracted a strong and growing following among vending operators, and 2) No other industry other than vending has recognized their benefits or has found itself in a position to take advantage of them.

Will self checkout markets stymie investment in new vending technology? No, and here is why.

Self checkout markets incorporate cashless capability, video touchscreens and remote machine monitoring; all technologies that promise to take vending to a new level of professionalism. As operators become more familiar with self checkout markets, they will get up to speed faster on how these technologies work.

The vending industry is finding ways to engage customers like never before.