MERRIAM, Kan. - Food and beverage vending machines are going high-tech with touch screens and card readers, the Wall Street Journal reports. Vending-machine operators have even added sales-tracking devices to better manage inventory and sales.
The industry has not embraced such technology before because small independent operators owned most of the machines and the innovations were too costly. But with vending-machine sales plummeting, thanks to the economy, larger operators are looking at how to slash costs and increase sales.
Last year, U.S. vending-machine sales experienced one of its biggest drops in history, declining 10 percent to reach $19.85 billion in 2009, according to Automatic Merchandiser. "Itï¿½ï¿½s only natural that, when times get tough, people search for new and better ways to do things and take risks on doing things they might not have done when times were going well," says John Mitchell Jr., an owner of Treat America Ltd., which operates around 12,000 vending machines in the Midwest.
Starting in January, Mitchell added recording systems to transmit real-time sales information on around 40 percent of his machines. This will eventually allow drivers to come prepared to stock machines with whatï¿½ï¿½s selling well at individual machines.
John Ioannou, president of Next Generation Vending and Food Service Inc., installed wireless technology on its 25,000 machines in the Northeast. Ioannou also added credit-card readers on several thousand machines. A pilot program tests thumbprint readers on around 60 machines. The company is looking into frequent-buyer discounts, too.
"We see [a vending machine] as kind of a small store, but nevertheless a store that has to engage the consumer," said Ioannou.