Last month we heard from several readers about an article in Roll Call, a Washington-based political news outlet, headlined “Lunch from a vending machine? It’s the new happy hour.”
Reporting from the Rayburn congressional office building, the newsperson lamented, “Group lunches, happy hours and post-work cocktails used to be the lifeblood of political Washington and may be again. But these days, bland food from a vending machine feels like a better symbol of where things stand on Capitol Hill.”
The article reminded me of a letter I received years ago from an operator who complained about an ad campaign that his bank was running. The bank was promoting a new savings program with a tagline “saving can mean much more than buying lunch from a vending machine.” He was angry because his vocation was being disrespected, especially by an institution with which he had done business.
The Roll Call article underscores that convenience service operators who provide vending machines, micro markets and OCS – despite their call to duty throughout the pandemic – are still confronted with a public perception problem.
The Roll Call reporter depicted the vending machines at the Rayburn building as a “last resort” to be used only if one did not have time to pack lunch at home. Vending machines suddenly became useful because delivery apps like Uber Eats and Grubhub couldn’t be used because of the security barriers erected around the Capitol after rioters stormed Congress on Jan. 6.
The public has been conditioned to think of vending as a last resort. The media think it only deserves attention when there’s a gimmick involved. (Breaking News! Vending machines sell cannoli kits, pastries, steaks, frozen pasta, jars of sauce, spices, fishing bait, etc.)
Industry pioneers had long strived to demonstrate that vending is not a second-best option to retail, but rather a novel and better way to sell goods. In one of its first PR crusades, the industry set out to convince a dubious public that there was nothing about a vending machine that enabled its operator to sell anything through it for a nickel less than what a grocery store would charge.
The public perception of the industry has since improved, but there’s still work to do. Thanks to the flexibility of self-checkout micro markets, which fed many essential workers throughout the pandemic, vending has moved from retailing’s mainstream to its forefront – but it still lacks the respect it deserves.
Comedian Rodney Dangerfield was best known for saying “I don’t get no respect!” That catchphrase, and his self-deprecating monologues around it, catapulted his brand, but it also defined his persona for the rest of his life. Off stage, the real Dangerfield (born Jacob Rodney Cohen) was gentlemanly and highly intelligent; he was a math genius who could solve complex problems in his head.
Like the real Rodney, vending is distinctive. Today’s operators are building on a rich tradition of innovation that deserves great respect.