What Makes a Good Seller?

May 1, 2008
Companies have curtailed inventory over the years, but many still rely on drivers for choices.

With the growth in use of planograms and handheld computers, vending route drivers often feel they have less input in deciding what products go in the machine. Many drivers are limited to choosing a handful of machine facings.

Drivers often feel that the restrictions minimize their role in the overall business. Nevertheless, these selections can make a difference to the customer, to the vending company’s profitability, and in the case of drivers paid on commission, to the driver’s income.

Drivers who are limited to choosing only a few facings often think that their choices are not important. This is an incorrect assumption. The “wild card” facings are important, given the fact that all locations have their unique needs. The driver who manages to fill these slots with popular selections will be providing a valuable service to the customer and to his or her own company.

Drivers should understand why their employers have these “wild card” facings in the first place. Vending companies realize that drivers are in a position to hear, first hand, about special requests from customers. There is no way for a vending company to know all the products that a given location will request.

The reason that these “wild card” facings are limited is that management knows that the majority of best selling items will be uniform across different locations. Management also realizes that the individual route driver cannot know what all the best selling items will be, especially in a glassfront snack machine where there are typically 45 facings.

Selecting the best selling “wild card” products is an important responsibility, and route drivers should not minimize its importance. The sales of a handful of selections can make a big difference to an account’s profitability. Drivers that do a good job selecting the best selling items play an important role in maintaining their company’s reputation with the customer. And in the end, protecting their own job security.

How does the driver know what items to select?

Automatic Merchandiser queried vending operators and supervisors on what drivers should look for. All of the individuals interviewed agreed that drivers’ selections are important to the company’s success.

First and foremost: listen to customers

The executives interviewed agreed that the first consideration drivers should follow is listening to customer requests. Simple as this may sound, the driver needs to decide if the company can get the requested product before telling the customer they will do so. Some products are not packaged to fit in vending machines. All products that customers may want are not available in all markets.

Once the driver finds the product and places it in the machine, he or she must monitor the sales. If the product does not sell a minimum number of turns in a certain time period, the driver must inform the customer who requested the product that sales were not sufficient to continue providing it.

Time periods cited by supervisors ranged from two weeks to three months.

“Just because somebody asks for something doesn’t mean they’re going to get it,” noted Todd Hedrich, president of Hedrich Vending & Amusements in Presque Isle, Maine. The company allows drivers to make some decisions. The supervisor then checks the machines to make sure there is nothing out of date in them. No product should be sitting six or seven weeks in a machine.

Hedrich was among those who believes that it is important for drivers to make some selections since they are the ones in direct contact with customers. He said drivers should be aware of the fact that customer tastes are changing, and they should not be afraid to try items that aren’t traditionally found in machines.

For instance, Hedrich said, many drivers were reluctant to place energy drinks in the cold beverage machines. These are a fairly new item and they carry higher price points than most beverages. Nevertheless, energy drinks proved to be a strong seller in many accounts. “Don’t be afraid to try new things,” Hedrich said.

The financial impact of successful selections can be significant over the course of a year, Hedrich said. A machine stocked with strong moving “wild cards” can yield an extra $30 a week in sales, translating into an extra $1,560 in a year.

Many supervisors interviewed agreed that it is important for companies to provide drivers with sales data to allow drivers to make good selections. Many agreed that their companies don’t do a good enough job in this area.

Much of the advice that operators and supervisors offer is nothing but common sense.

Tom Houseknecht, president of Loose Ends Vending Inc. in Batavia, N.Y., said drivers should familiarize themselves with the company’s product inventory, then make it a point to ask people at the locations for suggestions. Houseknecht said paying attention to the demographics at the location is also helpful; what sells well in one white collar location with a lot of female workers is likely to sell well in a similar location.

Coastal Canteen in Charleston, S.C. posts lists in its warehouse to let drivers know the best selling items in all of the different categories, noted Bob Bryan, general manager and vice president. The list is in the form of a big planogram. These lists are updated quarterly.

Compare notes with others

Drivers should also welcome input from supervisors on this issue, noted Carl Moser, general manager at Hampton Roads Vending & Food Service Inc. in Hampton, Va. Supervisors have the benefit of noticing trends in more locations than drivers.

Getting input from as many people as possible is helpful, agreed Hale Adler, a route supervisor at HGA Vending Corp. in Highland Mills, N.Y. This is why his company holds regular meetings with drivers and managers. The drivers and managers compare notes on what is and isn’t selling. Adler said a driver should give a new product two weeks before replacing it; three weeks if it’s a new account.

Alan Podolsky, purchasing agent at Havco Services Inc. in Croydon, Pa., said drivers often must learn from experience what items sell best with what type of customers. “You really have to know who your customers are,” he said.

Most customers shop for good value, which includes quantity, price and taste.

Packaging makes a difference

Podolsky said manufacturers have improved packaging in recent years. Packages that are colorful and have dramatic graphics will get attention.

Podolsky said his company sometimes brings in products that are not available from standard vending distribution sources. These include gourmet type items.

Podolsky said there is a rising demand for gourmet type products in vending, but vending operators need to walk a fine line in meeting this demand. If it’s “overdone,” it will defeat the purpose of driving sales.

Don Herbert, route manager at Kenoza Vending Inc. in Merrimac, Mass., agreed on the importance of package graphics. “Nowadays, appearance is everything,” he said.

Drivers are hearing customers ask for healthier items. They are also the first to notice that many of these requests aren’t matched by purchases. But many vending operators have noticed that this is starting to change, however slowly.

The recent lull in consumer confidence is also something to pay attention to, noted Brent Cromer, president of Cromer Food Service Inc. in Anderson, S.C. While national name brand products have always been strong sellers in vending, Cromer said consumers are paying more attention to price, which has made certain “generic” products good sellers recently. Cromer said drivers should consider some of the lower priced products.

The company recognizes the need to offer good value and to regularly offer something new.

With all of the considerations that drivers need to pay attention to, choosing profitable products is not a simple matter. Drivers who are responsible for selecting products from the warehouse need to know their customers’ needs to make the best decisions.