Technology almost always accelerates during difficult times, so imagine what far-reaching advancements a pandemic can procreate for an industry that survives it. Contactless transactions, among other hi-tech tools for vending, micro markets and OCS, were at the forefront of industry discussions throughout the COVID-19 health crisis. Dozens of cashless payments products, vending management systems and dynamic scheduling tools have proven effective for operators over the past six years, and many of these are still in use. Automatic Merchandiser’s latest State of the Industry survey showed VMS deployment increasing from 51% in 2019 to almost 60% in 2020. Usage of telemeters and cashless devices managed remotely through the cloud is also on the rise, increasing from 29% in 2019 to 36% in 2020. For the majority of U.S. operators, the pandemic has meant an acceleration in their digital transformation. Following are some highlights of the latest technology developments and an updated on existing platforms.
Imagine a remote ordering solution that delivers fresh, local food and beverages to your clients. Avanti Markets did and designed a new concept specifically for vending and micro market operators. Called SimpleGet, the solution is available now.
Operators can use SimpliGet to set menus supporting local food orders that are delivered to secure lockers or other designated pickup areas. Customers place their orders on the SimpliGet website with funds from their Market Card accounts. Additional payment options will be added soon, Avanti said.
According to Avanti, customers will enjoy the benefits of other common food delivery services, but without the fees and tips typically associated with those apps. They can expect freshly made options delivered during a set window, with contactless delivery to ensure a safe experience. Notifications arrive via text and email messages, so there is no wondering when food has arrived. Personalization options for the service will be released later this year.
“We expect SimpliGet to be a sea change event for our operators who are working diligently to meet changing demands of customers,” said Avanti product head Lawrence Lerner. “By providing fresh and local food options at the workplace, our operators can continue to enhance amenities for their clients.”
Operators set up SimpliGet locations through the Avanti Markets System, the company’s existing management platform. Menus, order cutoffs and delivery times are managed through the companion SimpliGet Manage site. Orders are handled through active and future queues, and fulfillment is tracked by the foodservice provider.
This flexibility allows operators to use their own commissaries, outside kitchens or third-party food services. Menus can be rotated or changed as desired. Deliveries are made to pickup counters or Avanti’s optional lockers.
The locker system allows for contactless distribution. Delivery personnel place the order in a secured cubby with a QR code. The customer will use a scan code sent by email or SMS message to retrieve their order from the lockers once notified of delivery. Lockers run a UV-sterilization sequence after and order has been removed from a cubby.
If not using lockers, an operator can drop off an order at a designated pickup counter and the customer will be notified for pickup. Avanti said its new application is especially useful for locations with onsite cafés or cafeterias that are looking to limit congregation at ordering or pickup sites.
“By offering multiple delivery options, we have made this solution relevant to many venues.” said Avanti president John Reilly.
THE SWISS ARMY KNIFE
Global self-service technology leader 365 Retail Markets introduced its 365 Touchless Vending, which allows customers to purchase vending items from their smartphone via the 365Pay app. The solution requires no connectivity set up, using a Bluetooth connection to work between a vending machine and the consumer’s phone.
Similarly, 365 Touchless Coffee allows operators to automate the in-office coffee experience by connecting directly to the machine via 365Pay. The coffee equipment solution is powered by 365Beacon and BUNNlink, a cloud-based solution with a wide variety of hot beverage options.
“During the pandemic, 365 saw an incredible uptick in usage of our industry-leading 365Pay consumer app. Much of this was simply using the app to pay at a V5 MicroMarket kiosk or the new PicoCooler using the QR code in the app,” explained 365 vice president of product Ryan McWhirter.
“That said, we also saw a record number of scan/pay transactions using 365Beacon and a rise in café/dining order ahead transactions from 365Pay,” McWhirter added. “Now Touchless Vending and Touchless Coffee join that same Swiss Army Knife for the convenience services industry, 365Pay, where all six of these touchless transaction technologies come together in one easy place.”
Los Angeles-based Yoke Payments, founded in 2015, is continuing to simplify self-checkout processes with plug-and-play hardware and mobile application in conjunction with software designed to integrate into existing VMS platforms. In addition, the retail tech company provides business management tools offering real-time reporting and insightful analytics to help operators stay on top of key performance indicators.
Yoke was acquired by Cantaloupe Inc. in late August.
The Yoke Pay Mobile App enables the sales and purchases of products through smartphones. It’s a combination of a mobile wallet and kiosk. It eliminates checkout lines and expensive hardware. Customers grab a product scan, pay and enjoy. YPMA works for locations that want the benefits of a standard micro market, but the location size does not warrant a full-size market.
When YPMA was introduced five years ago, many operators at first doubted the idea of phone app purchases being the sole way to pay, according to Yoke cofounder Benjamin A. Thomas. “But now it is the primary method of paying for products and it is opening doors that were not open before.”
Yoke is slated to show off some new features at 2021 the NAMA Show in New Orleans. These might include the ability to integrate Yoke payments at vending machines and smart coolers.
There are several “kioskless” market solutions available to operators, from both stalwart industry brands and newcomers. AveriGo, a three-year-old Cerritos, CA-based software company, provides mobile apps and cloud-based solutions to micro market operators. By eliminating the need of the physical kiosk, the company said its technology enables the quick deployment of micro markets.
AveriGo designed its GrabScanGo app as a “no-contact” solution for micro markets of all sizes. The app turns a phone into a personal kiosk, allowing shoppers to purchase products in seconds without having to stand in a checkout line or interact with a physical kiosk.
When it comes management software and wireless DEX hardware, many operators go to Gimme Vending. The Atlanta-based enterprise introduced its first tools for vending, micro markets and office coffee service in 2014. Gimme is known for its onsite training programs and 365/24/7 phone and email support.
One of the company’s newest retail tools is Gimme VMS, a supply chain management system for vending, micro markets and OCS. The system is fully cloud-based, optimized for mobile devices and integrates with existing micro markets, as well as with cashless and pre-kitting products.
“Gimme provides hassle-free, white-glove database transitions from existing VMS platforms,” company cofounder Evan Jarecky said. “And our onsite deployment specialists assist with training and support throughout transitions and beyond.”
READY TO ENGAGE
Digital payments leader Cantaloupe Inc., formerly USA Technologies, will begin shipping a new generation of touchscreen devices this fall. EPort Engage and ePort Engage Combo are the latest iterations in the company’s ePort reader series. Cantaloupe said the new devices will give retailers the ability to “captivate consumers in new ways and enables truly frictionless purchasing.”
EPort Engage accepts all digital payments, including EMV (chip and contactless), magstripe and mobile wallets. It will reportedly support transactions for bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. The new readers are designed to integrate with Cantaloupe’s Seed software.
Other features of the all-in-one card reader and telemeter include advanced anti-tamper security; PCI PTS 5.X compliance; edge-to-edge 3.5” touchscreen to maximize engaging customer interactions on the Engage; and 2.5” touchscreen flexibility that fits over a bill acceptor on the Engage Combo.
Cantaloupe observed that the past year has seen the adoption of contactless payments grow to help consumers be safer while shopping and dining out. But those consumers still want a personalized experience.
“We believe retailers across the board will benefit from this next generation of devices,” said Cantaloupe chief technology officer Ravi Venkatesan. “The ePort Engage series is a great option for unattended retailers, as well as more traditional businesses wanting to shift to an autonomous retail experience.”
ONE BILLION, AND GOING
PayRange continues to provide the same mobile digital payment platform, introduced six years ago. The operator-friendly system was invented for vending and amusement machines, easily retrofitting on existing machines. It’s available as an OEM-installed payment option from select manufacturers.
With more than 3 million app users and over 1 million BluKey devices sold, PayRange has become a leading mobile payment system. The payment network recently surpassed 1 billion cash and mobile transactions. The typical PayRange user averages 15 transactions a month.
The BluKey Plus is a small Bluetooth-enabled device that plugs into a MDB cable, allowing existing payment devices to function while adding a mobile (and touchless) payment method – without the need for an Internet connection. Payment is made on the vending patron’s smartphone. Installation takes about 30 seconds. BluKey Plus also integrates with any VMS.
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, operators servicing correctional facilities needed cashless payment system that could be used by prisoners, staff and visitors. For Thomasville, NC-based Microtronic US, payment solutions for jails and prisons have become its core business after a major payments group stopped supporting its systems in the custodial space.
Microtronic US developed a transfer station that allows existing card-key holders from end-of-life systems to transfer funds to its cards. This greatly reduces refunds that an operator would ordinarily have to send out and or hand out on site. A Microtronic US transfer station could later be converted into a loading station with a few minor tweaks.
By eliminating the need for changers and token machines, the system is designed to keep cash out of prisons, and reduce service calls. When visitors enter a facility’s registration area, they can purchase a card from the dispenser and load it, paying with cash, or with a debit or credit card, where permitted. The card is the only currency allowed in the visitation area, where it can be used to purchase items from vending machines, equipped with Microtronic US readers. Readers are offline so they cannot be hacked; they read and write by directly interfacing with the card. Reports provide full accountability of both sales and loads using a small statistic key.
While the company’s offline jail vending system is mainly intended for visitors, it can also integrate with Advanced Technologies Group’s Offender Management Suite for use by inmates. While Microtronics US’s transfer station, introduced in 2017, is becoming prison staple, it’s also suitable for any location type with similar needs.
Connected vending machines require strong and reliable communication applications to process transactions, track inventory, and perform maintenance and repairs. A weak Internet connection can hinder a vending operation, frustrating customers and reducing profits.
A not uncommon practice is to use a router and a data plan, leaving the maintenance and management up to the operator. This strategy might save on monthly fees, but result in lost sales.
There are several solutions specific to vending and other unattended points of sale (jukeboxes, ATMs, kiosks, etc.) to fully manage location-based connections. The right connectivity product will improve uptime and provide an online dashboard that allows an operator to manage equipment portfolio. Naturally, a reliable connectivity service must be backed by a support program that’s available 24/7.
Introduced late last year, neo2 is OptConnect’s “next evolution in fully managed cellular connectivity for the Internet of Things.” Neo2 is said to deliver nearly twice the speed, twice the carrier coverage and twice the connectivity power as its predecessor.
The distinguishing feature of the neo2 device is failover switching to a redundant network. It's equipped with two onboard cellular connections, AT&T and Verizon, and if one connection fails, the other takes over. The compact LTE (Cat 4) neo2 also has two Ethernet ports and an LED array to indicate signal strength.
“We’ve taken everything customers love about the original neo and made it twice as good. Customers are now connecting more devices that need faster access to the cloud and to data,” said OptConnect’s chief experience officer Kevin Dalton.
Downtime is always bad, but as connectivity to the cloud becomes more critical, any interruption becomes more costly, Dalton emphasized.
“Neo2 adds connections, speed and carrier redundancy to ensure high uptime,” Dalton explained. “And it is a truly compact, full-featured high-speed cellular router that fits almost anywhere, enabling equipment connections to cloud services. Dual, redundant cellular connections give peace of mind while full integration with managed wireless service makes for a headache-free experience.”
B2B OCS INTEGRATION
IT authority Tech 2 Success helps convenience services companies leverage technology to accelerate and automate their business processes and achieve goals. A new Tech 2 Success service is an e-commerce integration for office coffee delivery services, which enables OCS operators to give their clients the same online shopping experiences they would receive from Amazon, Staples and Walmart.
According to Tech 2 Success’s John Hickey, operators can leverage cross-sell and upsell opportunities with an e-commerce solution integration into their backend system. Operators can also automated messages to promote additional and larger more orders. And they can create direct-to-consumer programs, which could be subsidized by savvy employers looking to retain talent working from home. “This is a true B2B e-commerce platform for OCS operators,” Hickey said.