Energize Displays with LED Lighting

Sept. 3, 2008
Vending machine lighting provides operators with better merchandising potential, green marketing initiatives and monetary savings.

Light-emitting diode (LED) technology has expanded from individual lights on gauges to applications as varied as curing dental fillings to lighting traffic signals. The brightness of LEDs relative to their size and their durability make them preferable to incandescent and fluorescent bulbs.

New to vending, LEDs are available in retrofit kits to replace fluorescent bulbs in existing vending machines. And, equipment manufacturers are offering them to operators purchasing new merchandisers.

“LEDs have a number of real benefits for operators,” said Brent Garson, president, Vendors Exchange International Inc. (VEII). “First, we must examine the real cost of lighting: cost of the bulb, replacement frequency, and cost of the replacement service.”

LEDs Save money

Many operators admit that route drivers don’t replace the light bulbs in vending machines, said Garson. The task falls to maintenance personnel due to the realities of the job. The cost of a technician, added to the cost of the trip as well as the replacement bulb, runs anywhere between $60 to $90, concluded Garson. Calculate that with the average life span of a continuously lit fluorescent bulb, one year, and that equates to roughly $320 over five years to keep it lit.

LED retrofit kits, speaking specifically about VEII, offer a monetary savings. The economy package, said Garson, is a single LED strip in the same location as the fluorescent bulb, which is guaranteed to last four years. The cost is less than $50, a potential savings of $270 over five years.

More than a cost savings

However, LED lighting does more than simply save the cost of replacing traditional bulbs. It is a strong merchandiser. Garson offers operators a demonstration at his office of a vending machine lit with a fluorescent bulb, a single LED replacement strip and the deluxe LED kit, which includes three LED strips placed with reflectors on the top and sides of the vending machine.

“We wanted to bring people to a snack machine from 20 to 30 feet away,” said Garson. Having a number of LED strips does that. The unique blue-white color of the LED, together with the reflectors, has an illuminating effect on the vending products as well, said Garson. VEII’s deluxe lighting package offers three LED bulbs to replace the fluorescent bulbs and reflectors that have a mirror-like coating on the inside and are able to reflect the LED’s light onto the products instead of out towards the customer. The reflectors target the LEDs shining on the left onto products on the far right, and the far right lights get directed to products on the left. This gives even coverage of light to the products and avoids hot spots, said Garson. He compared the LED kits to a black light. “It makes the products jump out at you,” stated Garson.

At the fall NAMA show in St. Louis, Mo., VEII is coming out with an infrared sensor kit that can be installed on any machine with its LED lighting, Garson said. The infrared sensor will dim the LEDs when customers are not present. When a customer walks into the sensor’s radius, lights will instantly turn on, drawing attention to the products in the machine.

Billy Buckholz, chairman of Goodman Vending Co., Reading, Pa., got a shock the first time he saw the LEDs in one of his vending machines.

“They hadn’t told me about them,” he said. “I walked into an account and the machine was all lit up,” said Buckholz. “The products looked like they were sparkling.”

Buckholz decided to try the lights in five accounts with a lot of traffic, especially transient accounts. After doing one machine in a bank of machines, Buckholz saw sales rise 15 percent. Thrilled, he added LEDs to the rest of the machines at the location and pulled a report at six months. Unfortunately, the weather got hot and the economy went cold. Buckholz has seen a drop in most accounts, but the ones with the LED lights didn’t drop at all. In better conditions, he estimated he’s seen an average increase of 5 percent for machines with the LEDs.

Although easy to install (Buckholz estimates it takes the service technicians about 15 minutes) and good for sales, Buckholz doesn’t see himself replacing all machines’ bulbs with LEDs. One roadblock is the upfront cost of $150 for the deluxe VEII kit. He also believes that making the products “pop” works better at a public location. His machines located at hospitals and the YMCA get better turns with LEDs. At accounts like factories where the people are there every day, the LEDs don’t seem to have as much effect on sales.

“I would buy machines without them (LEDs),” said Buckholz, “but add them as a kit to certain transient locations.”

Environmental Savings

InOne Technologies developed LEDs for vending machines to provide energy conservation, said Gene Ostendorf, president.

“We first approached snack machines, because we knew USA Technologies had a product called the Energy Miser that managed energy consumption inside (beverage) machines by turning on and off the compressor,” said Ostendorf. While very effective, there was also an opportunity for energy savings in snack machines by removing the fluorescent bulb.

According to Ostendorf, the fluorescent bulb is the largest consumer of electricity in a non-refrigerated machine. After two years, InOne came up with an LED light replacement that saves 40 percent of the energy. “We recognized that energy conservation is not something that operators are as concerned about as are the facilities their machines are located in, so we worked hard to provide a ROI (return on investment) for the operator; and that is long life,” said Ostendorf.

“By using super efficient, long lasting LEDs, we are able to provide a life of at least 10 years for the lamp,” he said. Ostendorf also points out that fluorescent bulbs contain mercury. Since they are located in food machines, regulations call for special handing of their disposal.

Green Marketing A Plus

The positive environmental benefit of LEDs is something Have A Vend, Croydon, Pa., is promoting. At many of its locations, Have A Vend is advertising its “green touch” environmental practices via stickers that tell customers about the energy savings it is responsible for by converting vending machine light to LEDs.

Have A Vend originally investigated LEDs to cure a widespread electrical problem the company was having with fluorescent bulbs, said Michael Schultz, president, Have A Vend.

“With the malfunction of fluorescent bulbs, or flickering, there were electrical spikes back to the control board which produced unexpected things to happen in the machine,” said Schultz.

The affected machines (usually older models) would “jackpot” the money, emptying the changers into the coin return, continued Schultz. The motor would sporadically start to free vend, dispensing product without payment. When a service technician would troubleshoot the machine, he would find nothing wrong, because the light was not malfunctioning at that moment.

“LEDs guarantee we won’t have these problems,” said Schultz.

Although no longer having machines spontaneously giving away money or product is an enormous benefit, Have A Vend wasn’t content. It wanted to offer customers something more.

“We wanted to do something for consumption that salesmen could sell with,” said Schultz, “They can now say, we’re not here to suck money from you, but are a way for you to get money.”

The transformer, starter and bulb of traditional lighting draws a lot of power; the higher the voltage, the more amperage, and amperage is what costs money.

Employees at Have A Vend have done a number of comparisons with the company’s LED kit and found that after installing the LEDs, a food machine with a compressor drew 2 to 2.5 fewer amps and a snack machine drew 1 to 2 fewer amps. Depending on the fluorescent bulbs previously in the vending machines, this can be a savings of $13.22 a month.

The Have A Vend light management system includes not only the LED lights to replace a fluorescent, but also a sensor that turns the lights off when the machine is inactive. The lights will instantly come on again when a customer is present. Turning a fluorescent on and off like this will decrease the life of the bulb, but it prolongs the life of an LED, confirms Schultz. Have A Vend uses a cling on the outside of the machine to notify customers the machine is working, and saving the environment.

Research shows consumers will not purchase solely based on environmental causes, but like to know they are supporting such initiatives.

The Have A Vend LED kit also comes with an optional speaker that plays prerecorded messages either from the location or an advertiser. The recording can be sold to a manufacturer to sell a specific product or an operator can highlight a healthy product selection, said Schultz. The recording can record messages from one to five minutes.

But probably the most important feature of the LED kit is the merchandising improvements: both environmental associations and product presentations.

One of the first questions locations ask is how much the machine will cost to operate. There are a few locations Have A Vend serves, such as nursing homes, which don’t have another light in the same room as the vending machine, in order to save money.

But the visual presentation is just as compelling. The LEDs bring out the color of the products, said Schultz. They are bolder, more easily seen and more dramatic. People also react positively to the smart sensor. People come up to the machine and it lights up. “They really like it,” he said.

Operators need to be aware that not all LEDs are the same quality. If it seems too good to be true, it usually is. They should purchase products with guarantees (see sidebar on page 22).

“This (LED) is a win-win for customers and vendors,” said Schultz, “It opens up so many ways for vendors to save money.” LED lighting is the new way to draw attention to products in order to sell more, promote the company as green, and save some money in the long term on servicing the bulbs. Many companies offer retrofit kits and the lighting is available on new machines.

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LEDs are semiconductors which produce a single wavelength of light/color from electricity passing through a contained chemical compound. Although first invented in the 1960s, the colors were limited. It wasn’t until the 1990s that the invention of the blue LED made it possible to create an LED that appears white to the naked eye.

The LED’s brightness, life span and amount
of heat given off are all related to the electricity it takes to produce the light. Some LEDs are hot, but don’t last very long. Other LEDs can last indefinitely, but without being very bright. Brent Garson of VEII has made a study of this new technology. He warns operators not to be swayed by the price of LEDs alone. Light is measured in lumens, said Garson. When an LED’s lumens decreases to 70 percent, the human eye will notice the light is dimmer. This is considered the LED’s lifespan. The LED lifespan is influenced by the amount of current and temperature (both the temperature of the LED and the environment). The more energy consumption and hotter an LED, the quicker it will fade. Operators should be certain to get a good balance that will last long enough to recoup the investment, Garson said.


  1. LEDs save money by lasting longer without problematic electrical spikes.
  2. LEDs use less electricity, a selling point to a location and a way to market the vending operation as environmentally friendly.
  3. LEDs highlight products inside the machine — raising sales.


“Fluorescent lights are super efficient — up to 80 percent more than incandescent bulbs — which is great for the environment, but they do have to be handled properly once they burn out,” said Alan J. Steinberg, regional administrator, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), in a prepared statement. “Most people don’t realize that every time they toss a fluorescent bulb into the regular trash, they are releasing mercury into the environment. Though these bulbs only contain a very small amount of mercury, it can add up fast.”

The EPA finds LEDs to be a positive technology overall. The LEDs do not use mercury, eliminating the danger inherent in improperly disposed of fluorescent bulbs, which release mercury when broken. LEDs use less energy, reducing carbon emissions and last longer, reducing the amount of lighting related waste thrown away. Other environmental concerns may arise, but have not
yet been researched.