Operators cash in on technology during COVID, seek more innovation| Coping with COVID-19 | Vending Times

2020 will be remembered as the most challenging year in the convenience services industry’s history, thanks to COVID-19. But it will also be remembered as a year that many convenience service operators realized the full value of their technology investments, as attested by a panel that participated in a recent “technology town hall” webinar presented by the National Automatic Merchandising Association.

In addition to describing how technology helped them endure the pandemic, the panelists also cited some of changes they would like technology providers to offer. Ben White, NAMA director of education and training, moderated the session, which was sponsored by Parlevel Systems.

Webinar panelists from three different geographical markets weighed in on how technology helped during the pandemic. Image courtesy of the National Automatic Merchandising Association.

Dynamic route scheduling became more important than ever for All Star Services Inc. in Port Huron, Michigan, as many customers closed on account of the pandemic, said Duncan Smith, company president. The company was able to dynamically schedule both vending and micro market routes.

“It really helped us to set routing the day before because of what was open and what wasn’t,” Smith said. “From a cost saving standpoint, technology really helped us manage through the pandemic.”

Smith also said he saw more hands-free technology introduced to address customer safety concerns.

“A lot of technology providers really stepped up to offer and find ways to do ‘hands free,’ whether it’s through an app on your phone or a foot pedal for a water cooler,” Smith said. “It really seemed to accelerate this last year because of the fear of the virus.”

Smith said he expects touchless technology will continue to have a place, but the demand has not been as strong as when the pandemic began. This is because it has become evident that people don’t contract the virus from contact points.

White, the moderator, agreed, noting that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has stated that surface transmission is not the crux of the risk.

Micro markets expand

Bigfoot Beverages in Eugene, Oregon deployed more lower cost kiosks provided by its micro market provider, said Dave Wood, sales manager. The company also converted a number of traditional vending accounts to micro markets, which in many cases doubled the sales.

Bigfoot Beverage also instructed its commissary workers to pull orders from an iPad rather than using pen and paper, which saved a lot of time and improved commissary employee morale.

Michael Ray, manager of Healthy Generation Vending in Humble, Texas, said the pandemic helped make everyone more aware of the role that technology plays in general, such as the increased reliance on Amazon for shopping.

“It’s closer to us than we thought,” he said of Amazon.

Cashless increases

Wood said cashless became a more important selling feature for micro markets during the pandemic.

Smith agreed, noting that cashless use increased from 40% to 60% during the pandemic.

Clients raise concerns

Asked if they were getting any new types of client requests due to the pandemic, Smith said many clients wanted to know how he was minimizing risks related to the virus. They also wanted to know what the long-term solution would be if the pandemic continued.

Ray said the pandemic caused some clients to discontinue micro markets since there is more handling of products in a market than a vending machine. While some of these customers have since gone back to using markets, others have not.

As the vaccinations continue, Ray and Smith both said they expect some customers will require that all service employees be vaccinated.

Operators want more technology

While they appreciate the solutions that have been introduced to date, operators offered some suggestions for technology suppliers.

Ray said he wants software that integrates with his vending management software to track company activities.

He would also like to see an app to help with responding to customer service requests, considering that the company is getting more texts as opposed to only phone calls.

“I would love to see something like that; some sort of service app,” Ray said.

In a similar vein, Smith said he would like to see software that can predict orders at the warehouse level, similar to the software that predicts orders at the location and machine levels.

“Why can’t it predict what we’re going to use in our warehouse for the next three, four or five days, like to help us with just in time inventory?” he asked.

Smith would also like to see software to assist with merchandising. At the present time, an employee visits the locations to oversee merchandising.

“That needs to be automated, to be able to adjust pars up and down, and increase facing automatically,” he said. “No one person can look at our company that quickly, and there’s a lot of dead cash in the field in our business.”

Smith also would like to see technology to promote products at the machine. He said promotions could be targeted by day part or even by individual consumer.

“If someone buys product X, then product Y is automatically promoted to them,” he said. “Promotions are definitely a big part of the client technical communications standpoint.”

Smith also said there is room for more reliable cashless transactions.

Wood said he would like to see interactive customer communication at the kiosk and machine.

“Is there a signal that can be created to go service this credit card reader?” Wood asked.

The panelists also agreed that software interoperability is important since most of them use different software programs for different parts of the business.

“I don’t think our companies would be as far advanced today if it wasn’t for the technology companies,” Smith said. “All the data we have now to run our businesses better, more effective, more efficient, it’s made us hungry for more.”

For an update on how the coronavirus pandemic is affecting convenience services, click here.