Thinking outside the box
When Black Box Vending opened its doors for business in 1995, dial up modems were cutting edge technology, Bill Clinton was president and DVDs were newly launched. It boggles the mind to think how far we’ve come in terms of technological advancement. It boggles the mind to think about how profoundly technological advancement has impacted the vending industry. For Black Box Vending; embracing change has helped them avoid becoming irrelevant.
“I would definitely cite the move from cash-based transactions to cashless as the biggest trend impacting the vending industry,” says Chris Batchelor, operations manager of Black Box Vending. He points out that vending machines used to be a way for one to get rid of spare change, but as fewer people started carrying cash, new solutions were needed. Black Box has leveraged technology by offering Bluetooth-based solutions that allow customers to pay with their phones. Cashless payment has also allowed Black Box to offer micro market solutions for corporate clients who either want to offer their employees a means of obtaining fresh meals without operating an expensive cafeteria. These miniature stores allow customers to pick up the food and read the label before they purchase it. They are unattended and self-serve, using “scan and pay” technology that can include debit/credit cards, employee badges or bar codes or even a Biometric fingerprint.
“Micro markets need the right customer,” Batchelor says. “There needs to be buy-in from both the company and the employees. We do have a couple of them in town at contact centres that are very busy.” He points out that micro markets offer a wider variety of sizes and shapes so options aren’t limited to those items that can fit into a traditional vending machine.
The micro market concept is perhaps one a bit ahead of the curve as one of its benefits is the potential for it to morph into a hub for take-out meals as employees head home at the end of the day. Some proponents of this format envision offering staples such as bread and milk to allow employees to get what they need without budgeting time for a detour on their way home. “We’re not quite there yet in terms of the convenience store concept,” Batchelor says. He does confirm that there has been some concept testing around meals to go that may develop into more down the road. As Amazon lines up to revolutionize fresh food delivery, including groceries and meal components, it follows that consumers will come to expect convenient solutions from all suppliers for their meal dilemmas. Micro markets will be a great vehicle to tap into this opportunity.
Another trend that Black Box Vending has identified and targeted is the consumer desire for healthy options. While a lot of research indicates that people want healthy options in their vending machines; it is an area where some caution needs to be applied. As many food industry marketers have learned the hard way, consumers “talk the talk” but don’t always “walk the walk” when it comes to their cravings.
“We offer the indulgent and the healthy options side by side,” Batchelor says. “When people crave something at 3:00 in the afternoon, often it’s that less healthy option that appeals.”
Black Box Vending also offers a strong office coffee program and Batchelor sees office coffee as a solid growth area. “Today’s machines make a great cup of fresh coffee. Even though some coffee is brought in from outside, there’s still robust demand. We recommend drip brew for most clients because it’s cost effective.”
Offices are changing as baby boomers exit the workplace and millennials take centre stage. This cohort still drinks coffee and wants collaborative workspaces. Sharing a cup while brainstorming is considered a natural way to work.
Vending is the original direct-to-consumer delivery model. Technology has freed the industry to innovate and give consumers more options.
“Our machines have a QR code that allows customers to scan and report any product shortages or mechanical issues,” Batchelor says, adding that “most customers still phone in their questions.”
Change doesn’t happen overnight, but just because it’s gradual doesn’t make it any less important to embrace. Perhaps this aspect of their business model was baked in from its inception?
“Why the name Black Box?” Canadian Vending asked.
Batchelor chuckles and says: “Our founder Mike Baghdadi started this company while still in school himself and realized he was embarking on a journey with an unknown outcome. A black box is defined as any complex piece of equipment, typically a unit in an electronic system, with contents that are mysterious to the user.”
Facing the unknown from day 1, Black Box Vending’s management understands that conditions change and has managed to shape shift with the market.
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