Automation Stops At Consumer Eating

June 9, 2016

Will automation in food really be in our future? This question occurred to me when I was reading an article about food vending machines that were dedicated to a certain food category, such as burritos and pizza. Undoubtedly you’ve seen the media coverage of these machines, as well as some of them at the NAMA OneShow. A few different examples of the pizza machine were at the event, as have been a bread making machine, fresh orange juice and frozen yogurt. This idea of a dedicated food vending machine isn’t new, but it hasn’t taken off to change our industry either. While the machines create hype among consumers, some in our industry have talked with me about the fact that the machine costs are too high to justify the use in workplace locations and there is often red tape or other challenges associated with public areas. Also, they tend to break…a lot. I remember a few years ago our booth was across from a French fry vending machine. The product tasted great, but the machine was constantly breaking and by day two, the manufacturer gave up and sent their staff home.

Personless transactions

Proponents of these food machines argue that the desire for automation is at an all-time high. Millennials and many other generations of consumers prefer not to deal with people during a transaction. I think we see that trend in traditional vending with the steady increase in revenues for the past few years as well as the success of micro markets. Consumers really don’t mind purchasing or interacting with machines. But I personally don’t think it’s enough. I think there are too many other trends in play -- healthy, local and product loyalty -- for this concept to work.

Vending machines have a stigma. The same sandwich in a vending machine and a micro market are perceived very differently by the consumer. Vending food isn’t considered as fresh or as healthy. What really works in vending is branded snacks, or items the consumer is familiar with. The same brands constantly show up as vending’s top sellers for a reason. Vending machines are a lot less affected by consumer eating trends.

I think the next problem these machines have is product loyalty. Consumers do not value convenience as they once did, which is a challenge for our industry. Instead, they want only the exact product, flavor or variety that they want. They will visit the vending machine, and if sold out, will go to the convenience store and possibly the grocery store to get that specific product. It’s not enough that a product is available, it must be the right product. How can a machine that makes only one item possibly meet the need of multiple consumers? Perhaps with an item that is customized, but then the maintenance increases due to all the moving parts and areas the machines could break. 

Perhaps a certain type of machine

There are certainly different categories of food machines. In some, the food is prepared off site and stocked into the machine. This might work a little better, especially if it’s a brand that can overcome the initial consumer perception. I think coolers that are essentially locked until a credit card is swiped are another way this category could succeed. However, I am not sold on the food machines that “make” something right there while the consumer waits. They are fighting against a lot of negative history. One day a brand could potentially shake up this category and turn the industry on its head. I would cite the revolution of coffee by chains like Starbucks. Right now though, there is no such brand, and I think automation works best with snacks consumers expect to see and know about, as well as the non-perishable items (this is a category I see growing and continuing, but that’s another topic). It’s an interesting concept, but I’ll hedge my bets that robots and vending machines will not be making my meals. What do you think? Leave your comments below.