The carrot or the stick?
By Michelle Brisebois
How to address growing demand for great taste and greater nutrition
By Michelle Brisebois
Traditionally, consumers have had a somewhat illicit relationship with
their favourite vending machine. It’s there, down the hall, beckoning
with all of its tasty yet (typically) “bad-for-you” treats.
Traditionally, consumers have had a somewhat illicit relationship with their favourite vending machine. It’s there, down the hall, beckoning with all of its tasty yet (typically) “bad-for-you” treats. When the munchies strike, that machine is there like a port in a storm with snacks to soothe a bad mood or the tummy rumbles due to a skipped meal. It’s been said that you don’t truly know someone until you see how they react to their bag of chips getting stuck in a vending machine. But is that machine capturing all of the snacking occasions available in its target radius? If the machine isn’t offering healthy food and beverage options, the answer is most certainly “no.”
|A study found average monthly per-machine sales soared from $84 to $371 in a little over a year in the Chicago Park District.|
Vending operators may choose to stick with the traditional junk-food-based vending portfolio for a variety of reasons. Perhaps it’s operational ease – foods filled with sugar and preservatives don’t perish as quickly as fresher options do. Complacency and the assumption that customers are content with the traditional lineup can result in machines filled with chocolate bars, soft drinks and chips. Sure, your customers might have a sweet tooth, but the truth is they don’t really have a choice because your machine is the only option when they’re peckish.
A survey by Kelton on behalf of organic bar manufacturer Taste of Nature supports the notion that accessibility is a big part of a purchase decision. While the top reason consumers polled chose snacks that might not be the healthiest choices was taste (73 per cent), they also said convenience (54 per cent) and accessibility (35 per cent) were major factors in how they made their snack-purchasing decisions. Government, recognizing that vending machines play to a somewhat captive audience, started forcing a shift towards healthier offerings.
While the industry grumbled, consumers responded positively and the tide began to turn.
Shaun Casey of Canadian Healthy Vending definitely feels that what started as a government mandate about eight years ago has developed into a full-blown consumer demand. “The B.C. government was the first to influence the shift to healthier vending options in public buildings,” says Casey. “There was a bit of a reaction in the industry at first, but then we started getting more and more phone calls asking how to get healthier items into the mix. The trend for healthy vending options is definitely driven by consumer demand at this point,” he says. Part of that growth is being fuelled by an increased demand for snack foods across many day parts. Snack foods aren’t for between-meal occasions anymore: they’re making an appearance at mealtime. Studies by NPD Group suggest that Americans aren’t snacking more frequently between meals. Their research indicates a shift in when snack foods are being eaten. “In the last few years, the number of snacks eaten between main meals in the U.S. has remained steady,” says the study. “Snacking is a prevalent behaviour on a per capita basis, but there has not been an increase in the number of occasions during these times. While we see in our SnackTrack information that traditional between-meal snacks may be flat or softening, versatile snack foods such as fruit and yogurt have been able to drive growth as a snack food at main meal occasions.” Snacks consumed along with a meal represent about 22 per cent of snack food occasions and this has increased from 20 per cent in 2010. If a two per cent increase doesn’t seem like much, consider that with more than 300 million people living in the U.S. it accounts for more than 3.6 billion additional snacking occasions over the last few years.
Pivoting away from the traditional vending fare towards a healthier portfolio does require a different set of operational considerations. For Casey, the machine and its ability to convey a healthy, clean, upbeat image is key to attracting that consumer looking for healthier options. “Our machines have attractive graphics and are clean with no dents or damage,” he says. Video displays can relay nutritional information or act as an interface to allow a consumer to send a message to a route operator regarding an item they’d like to see in the machine. Items will be fresher and require more attention to replenish but think about the customers you’re missing because they drive down the street to grab a yogurt or bag of popcorn at the supermarket. Research done to gauge whether or not the addition of healthier options to a vending machine attracts new customers reveals that “offering a complementary healthy vending solution as an alternative to a traditional vending solution drives throughput and profits by up to 10 per cent” (NPD Group, Snacking Trends, October 2012).
If your machine doesn’t carry most of these options, then you’re missing out on the growth. Don’t surmise that your vending customers are happy with candy, chips and pop because of stereotypical assumptions on your part. We asked Casey how he’d respond to the hypothetical argument “My machine is hosted by a manufacturing facility dominated by middle-aged men – they don’t want healthy snacks!”
“I love that question,” he replies. “We installed a machine at a remote B.C. sawmill. We sell a ton of organic cookies sweetened with applesauce and gourmet crackers at that location.”
If you decide to switch some or all of your product line to include healthier options, support the shift with some communication. Keep in mind that many of your potential customers have stopped checking out your vending machine because they’ve come to expect a certain type of unhealthy offering. Bright graphics will interrupt people as they walk past your machine. A small flyer to post on bulletin boards or leave in mail slots will help people know there are new options available. As for deciding on what those new options should be, Casey lists coconut water, sparkling and spring water, as well as Cliff bars, juice and air-popped chips as items that he sees growing in popularity. The Lempert Report indicates that 31 per cent of people are consuming more snacks this year than they did last year and are choosing nuts and fruit most often, followed by chips, crackers, cheese, cookies, yogurt, candy, vegetables and bars. Consumers are also more open to paying more for foods that offer great taste as well as nutritional value. In Canadian quick-service restaurants, consumers are willing to pay 13 per cent more for healthier options (NPD Group, 2010). A better-for-you portfolio will have the twin benefits of increasing average spend and increasing the number of transactions. The City of Chicago recently piloted healthy vending options and found that average monthly per-machine sales soared from $84 to $371 in a little over a year across the Chicago Park District. The peer-reviewed study was published in the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s monthly journal, Preventing Chronic Disease, in August.
Consumers are not looking to give up great taste for greater nutritional value. They want both, and many healthier options address their desires beautifully. Government regulations may have forced us to begin to change but consumers are now demanding it.
Change may be inevitable, but growth is optional, so don’t let it pass you by.