With the multitude of decisions involved in convenience services, becoming successful is a remarkable, effort-filled task. Like other businesses, vending companies can capitalize on a central mission and vision to define themselves and motivate their employees.
Lincoln County Vending, located in Fayetteville, TN, prioritizes innovation in making business decisions for its serving of the southern Tennessee and northern Alabama area. Its operations include vending, office coffee service, micro markets, in-house commissary and filtered water service.
Husband and wife team Dan and Pattie Holt, who own the Canteen franchise company, strive to keep up with technology advances in the industry to ensure the company’s employees can provide the best service possible.
Using technology supports employees, customers
“The one thing we didn’t want to do was ever get behind on technology because we know that that’s going to continue to help drive our business and help us provide a better service to our customers,” Dan Holt said.
After more than 30 years in the business, Holt said he especially enjoys the people he works with and the challenges involved in the company.
“Basically we’re selling snacks and drinks and foods. It’s something everybody has to have. It’s a service that our customers want to have and we want to make sure we’re doing the very best job we can at it,” Holt said. “It’s a challenge. It’s not for everybody, and it’s not easy, but it’s something that I’ve always enjoyed doing. And we’ve just been blessed to have really good people help us grow.”
Holt elaborated on the challenges of the vending service, such as ensuring proper food safety protocol and making wise product selection decisions.
“It’s not just taking a box of something to a location. It’s a lot more than that,” Holt said. “It’s trying to make sure that we’re putting in the items that customers want, making sure that they’re fresh and that everything that we do is proper.”
Therefore, having a good team and training them well is essential.
“You want to make sure you’re following and executing 100 percent of the plan at all times because there’s a lot of places you have a chance to make a mistake. It’s the kind of business that has a lot to it,” Holt said. “It takes a little time to train our drivers and our people to do it properly. And you’ve got to care enough to want to do it [properly].”
Building the business
Continuing to implement the latest technology has enabled the company to support its employees in their work. It has also helped the company retain its staff at a time when there is limited unemployment, Holt said.
“They can perform their jobs better, more quickly – and in the grand scheme of things, they end up making more money per hour due to the fact that we’re giving them those advantages,” Holt said. “That helps us keep our people.”
With the higher morale, staff have stayed the course in building the business, Holt noted. The company’s workforce in vending is now at 85 employees, up from 45 in 2015 and a two-man vending operation beginning.
“I’m so proud of all that they’ve done. I’m proud to see what they’re accomplishing out there,” Holt said.
Lincoln County Vending has made its vending 100 percent cashless and is continuing to grow its business through expanding its deployment of micro markets and pantry service.
Micro market success
Lincoln County Vending installed its first micro market in 2012, and that location – along with many others – has enjoyed success. Now over 60 percent of its automatic retail business is in micro markets, with 40 percent in vending, Holt said.
“The micro market segment of our industry has kind of flipped [the vending industry] on its head,” Kevin Posey, operations manager for Lincoln County Vending, said. “It’s probably the most exciting thing that’s happened since putting bill validators on vending machines. It’s changed the way we market our products and the variety of products we can offer. There’s only so much stuff that you can make fit inside a slot in the vending machine. The market’s really opened up a whole new world of products and the way that we can sell to our customers.”
Posey said the micro markets have enabled them to sell premium healthy drinks like high-end juices and smoothies that were a challenge to sell in vending machines.
Holt said his favorite product that they’re able to sell through micro markets that didn’t do well in vending machines is protein bars.
“We have high-end protein bars that will sell for $3 or more per unit that we can sell daily in a micro market as opposed to vending. We just could never get the $3 or $3.50 out of some of these protein bars that we can easily do within a micro market,” Holt said. “The micro market’s just a whole different world for us. As Kevin said, it’s the biggest change to come along in our industry. And I can sit here and tell you that we were probably a little slow to the market compared to some others because I was hesitant to do it. After we put out the first one, we knew this was the direction we were going to go.”
Although the company has replaced several vending machines with micro markets, Lincoln County Vending continues to use vending machines.
“We’re not sitting on a ton of vending machines,” Holt said. “We try to get them right back out in other locations. But the micro markets have been a very refreshing change for our industry.”
Posey added that micro markets enable operators to remove the physical barrier to customers that is inherent in vending machines that can act like a mental barrier.
“When customers can pick a product up and touch it, they’re more likely to buy it than they are when it’s behind a glass,” he said. “I think they feel more comfortable about the products that they’re getting.”
Holt said micro markets remove the “price barrier” that he’s noticed in vending machines.
“[Customers] aren’t looking at a vending machine and concerned about the price as much with the micro market,” Holt said.
Lincoln County Vending began using a new type of equipment in its operations around 2015: walk-in coolers.
“On our larger micro markets, we will actually put in a walk-in cooler similar to what you would find in a convenience store,” Holt said.
Route drivers are able to load inventory from the back of house toward the front, enabling them to fill the market more quickly, stock more drinks and keep the drinks colder. Lincoln County Vending has about a dozen walk-in coolers that it uses in micro markets and cafeteria foodservice. Drivers are able to enter through a back door to access the coolers, which are about 24 feet deep and 7 feet wide. They can even build up an inventory at a location so they can bring in more product on days when their workload is lighter.
“It just helps us to provide a better overall customer experience and a better opportunity for our route drivers, too,” Holt said.
Posey said this makes the company stand out in terms of customer service.
“You’re in the very back of the cooler and not taking up space in the employees’ break room during their breaks and lunches,” he said. “The drivers are able to roll their dolly in and work the drinks from the back and not get in the customers’ way.”
Gimme VMS beta testing
Another exciting change for Lincoln County Vending is participating in the beta testing of technology company Gimme’s VMS apps. The apps enable vending operators to develop more efficient routes.
Lincoln County Vending and the other companies that are now using the apps’ beta versions are making strides in perfecting the products prior to full implementation, he said. As of the Sept. 17 interview with Automatic Merchandiser, Lincoln County Vending was currently testing the field portion of the apps’ use parallel to the company’s current route platform, Gimme Drive, by having route drivers compare the two systems’ data analysis of filling and servicing markets on their routes.
“The speed in the devices at which drivers are able to run their routes has definitely improved,” Posey said.
He said this will be a big change for the company, as drivers may be able to use cellphones instead of iPads in running their routes. He anticipates that this will increase the speed of reporting, helping drivers with their routes.
The company has previously used vending management systems from other companies. Holt found that Gimme was what his company needed.
“We’re looking for a system that will make it better for our route drivers and warehouse people so that we can provide a better service for our customers, obviously. In today’s environment where it’s so tough to hire people and keep good employees, we want to do all we can to make sure we’re giving our people the best tools available that will allow them to do their jobs properly and be satisfied with their work,” Holt said. “We do know so far that Gimme has given us some advantages over what we’ve had in the past, and at this point, we’re really pleased with what we’re seeing.”
Lincoln County Vending took on a pantry account in the spring of 2019. Holt said it’s the first for their area of “small-town Tennessee” where there are few large technology companies that use a pantry service.
“We’re finding in this climate of tough employment times that more of our companies are doing things to help supplement their snacks and drinks for their employees,” Holt said.
Posey has emphasized to their clients the benefit of supplementing their employee break rooms with snacks and drinks.
“We’ve had several of them take advantage of that,” Holt said. “A pantry service or supplementing your break room costs for your employees is a very inexpensive method for recruitment or retention,” Posey said.
Industry will continue to evolve
Lincoln County Vending exclusively uses 365 Retail Markets technology for its kiosks and micro markets. It’s been able to increase its micro market accounts to more smaller-size companies as smaller-scale, less costly options for payments have become available.
Holt anticipates the automatic retail industry overall will continue to grow, propelled by the growth of micro markets. Payments technology that makes it more financially attractive for vending operators to offer markets to customers with fewer employees helps.
“I think the technology is just going to continue to make us better and offer us an opportunity to provide more for our employees, our team members and our customers,” Holt said. “I’m still excited about the industry. I’m thankful for the changes that have been made and look forward to anything else that comes along.”
Posey said he believes new, innovative tools for micro markets will help with the expansion of automatic retail.
“With the technology aspect of our industry, it’s a fun time to be doing what we do,” he added. “Technology, I think, will allow us to use our micro market-type concepts in more public spaces. Right now, most of the time, that’s in an enclosed environment where you have the same customers over and over again.”
Lincoln County Vending has already seen substantial change in the industry since its humble beginnings in the late 1980s, when the operation had nine vending machines that just took quarters, dimes and nickels, Holt said.
“Now we’ve evolved into a company that - not only do we still take quarters, dimes and nickels, but 65 percent of all of our money comes in electronically now, including with our cafeteria service,” Holt said. “Our industry has changed dramatically, and thankfully we’ve been able to change with it. And I think it’s going to continue to evolve. We want to stay ahead of everything we can from the technology standpoint to give us the best advantage as a company that we can get.