For years, handhelds were the preferred method of downloading vending machine data. They were faster than paper and pencil, allowed the data to be used in a vending management system, and then analyzed. They offered better cash accountability and some prekitting options. When telemetry burst into the vending channel allowing vending machines to connect to the internet via Wi-Fi or cellular signal so all of this DEX data could be sent instantly, it was eye-opening. The early adopters jumped at the chance to get accurate real-time data that could be used to prekit product in the warehouse and alter delivery schedules to be more efficient. However, the cost involved in the units, monthly fees for the cellular data signal as well as a hesitance to invest in new technology, kept vending data exchange upgrades relatively slow. In 2017, there are more solutions than ever, representing different aspects of the data exchange path, and operators are finding it easier, increasingly cost-effective and more compelling to transfer DEX data from the location using new technologies.
Mobile devices over handheld
“The trend is moving towards mobile devices, rapidly,” said Kirn Reis, vice president of business development for Crane Connectivity Solutions. In conversations with operators, Reis has heard many times that what they want is a way to leverage technology investments they already made and have an easier user interface. Reis believes mobile devices are the solution. “They are more intuitive. Think about how many people interface with a mobile device on a daily basis. They understand and know how to use it decreasing training time,” said Reis. The mobile device has advanced computing capabilities as well — Bluetooth, GPS, a larger screen, etc.
While Crane currently offers two mobile apps, Service Technician and Crane Cashless, the app for route drivers has not been released yet. However, Reis was confident about what it will offer operators when it is launched. “It will have all the core route driver functions, and the workflow will be similar to the handheld process with a new interface,” she said. The route driver will carry a Bluetooth dongle to plug into the DEX port of a vending machine. It will then send the data wirelessly to the mobile device. The app will be designed for either iOS (Apple) or android — smartphone or tablet, offering flexibility. “The commercial release will be before the NAMA OneShow in April,” said Reis about the mobile app. It is already being tested.
Anant Agrawal, president and CRO of Cantaloupe Systems echoes the trend in moving towards a “smart” mobile device for vending data exchange, with or without telemetry, due to better usability, cost and efficiency. “When operators first implement handhelds there is a lot of training and retraining that has to take place, not to mention the added expense if they have to repair a handheld,” said Agrawal. “There is already an established comfort level that people have with smart phones, so by enabling our software, Seed Mobile, on an iPod or smart phone device, it became not only an easy adoption, but a cost effective approach to what was traditionally done.” He argues that the added features, such as a camera, ability to scan bar codes, and addition of multiple apps, make the smart mobile device far superior.
Cantaloupe Systems already offers a mobile app for drivers called Seed Mobile. It can be used in conjunction with a telemeter or cashless device that is sending remote data as well as let drivers make notes or corrections. Seed Mobile can also be used with a Bluetooth device that plugs into the DEX port to transmit data wirelessly.
Making mobile more flexible
Relatively new entrant to the vending industry, Gimme was founded in 2014 and started offering what is essentially a way to replace the handheld, which works with existing VMS systems. Gimme’s patented plug-and-play solution has two parts. First is the Gimme Key, which plugs into the vending machine DEX port and enables DEX-ing without cables or pairing.
The other is Gimme Drive, basically a highly-visual mobile app that the route driver uses in lieu of the handheld, but everything is downloaded wirelessly and uploaded into the Gimme cloud.
“The biggest plus has to do with how users interface with the software,” said Gimme co-founder and CEO Cory Hewett. He recalls operators sharing stories of handhelds being cumbersome for their drivers to use, because of styluses, small buttons and frequently cracked screens. “Our solution has picture planograms to make servicing machines easier. We have measured, and using Gimme results in a 12 percent reduction in out of stocks and 1.1 percent lift in the top line revenues due to less data errors,” he said.
Hewett recommends iPad Minis to his customers due to the larger screen, but the app works on any iOS mobile device (not Android). The Gimme Key is battery operated so doesn’t require separate power or a cellular signal. The information is either saved in the Gimme cloud server and then sent to the operation’s existing VMS provider, such as Crane’s VendMax, or directly to the existing VMS mobile app such as with Cantaloupe System’s Seed Mobile.
Flexibility means more than just which VMS an operator can use. It almost includes what other benefits a “smart” mobile device offers over handhelds. Alan Munson, former vending operator, and chief commercial officer at Parlevel Systems, has priced handhelds, new for $1500 when an iPhone 6 is $200, and believes the benefit is that they do so much more. “With an app that is built into Google Maps, for instance, it allows the operator to track the driver,” he said. “You can’t do that with a handheld. The platform is not robust enough.” Mobile devices are an advantage for real-time service calls as well, whether it’s a note to stop by a different location or refilling a vending machine that is out of change. “You can push notes to the driver in real-time,” said Munson. “It lets you deal with issues in a timely matter instead of waiting until the handheld comes back to the building and the data has been downloaded. By then, the problem happened earlier in the day or even the day before.”
Parlevel offers an app because despite being a telemetry company, there needed to be a process that allowed on location changes. “The drivers need a way to account for refunds while in the field or changes made in the coin mechanism.,” said Munson. The company offers the app for iOS and android platforms.
While some operations purchase phones or tablets for the drivers for collecting DEX data or making notes if the machine has telemetry, Munson has also seen a number ask drivers to use their personal devices. “If it’s his personal phone, the driver is less likely to leave it around,” said Munson. Operators that ask drivers to use personal phones usually offer a stipend, perhaps $15 a month, notes Munson.
Handhelds have been a work horse in many industries, including vending. However, with smartphones and tablets becoming more common and affordable, the need for a handheld device is changing. Apps and vending software companies are making it easier for operators to choose a “smart” mobile option when downloading DEX data from machines that aren’t connected to the internet. For many, it is a good alternative when machines don’t warrant or allow for a telemetry/cashless device that would send wireless real-time DEX data. It’s one more option that will help operators to develop more efficient processes.