January 24, 2012

Computerized system replaces break-room vending machines

Wichita Vending is taking a page from convenience stores in a bid to change the way people think about eating in the break room.

Wichita Vending is taking a page from convenience stores in a bid to change the way people think about eating in the break room.

The company, one of the city’s largest operators of vending machines in the workplace, will replace machines with open shelves and open beverage cabinets. Customers will pay for the items using something like a refillable cash card at a computer kiosk. Security cameras will oversee the operation to keep everyone honest.

The new setup is a product called Avanti Market, a computerized system that Wichita Vending buys and installs. The company has put one in the break room at the Kansas Star Casino and expects to install them in its 85 to 90 accounts with more than 120 employees. It takes that much usage to make the expensive changeover profitable.

The benefits of moving to open shelves are varied, said sales manager Gordon Long. The biggest virtue is variety. Open shelves simply have more space than the machines so the company can put more stuff on the shelves.

Wichita Vending also plans to rotate in fresher items such as locally made sandwiches, salads and brownies. The idea is to provide healthier and more substantial food and drink options – along with the usual chips, candy and pop.

The reward for employers is the option of providing its workforce with healthier and more appealing fare. And, perhaps, making lunch more efficient by providing the kind of food that keeps workers from leaving over the lunch hour.

The expectation, Long said, is a 25 percent increase in the sale of healthier options.

For the company, the new marketplace has several benefits: It lowers operating costs over the long run by doing away with the costly machines, although the computer kiosk/security monitor system isn’t cheap.

It also gives Wichita Vending a Walmart-like real-time intelligence of what its customers are ordering. That gives the company a better sense of what’s selling, where and how fast.

And, perhaps most important, it will expand sales.

The big issue for vending companies in Wichita, Long said, is that there’s not a lot of organic growth. Most people who want a vending machine in their plant or office have one.

One strategy is to buy market share. Wichita Vending bought Air Capital Vending in 2006, ASAP Vending about two years ago and two Hutchinson vending companies within the last year. Over the years, it has also moved into food service, water service and coffee service.

Its new product expands the market by taking from nearby restaurants, convenience stores or from food brought from home. In fact, it kind of looks like a small version of QuikTrip’s move into fresher foods.

Long and project manager Gary Kurth say they expect to see about 12 percent growth from the addition of the new foods. Adding higher dollar options may also have higher margins for the company because they make some of the food themselves.

“It’s the same space with more choices; it’s that simple,” Kurth said.

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