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With the onset of summer, there's much activity at Marc Geerts' strawberry vending machines

"Sales through strawberry vending machines is a growing market"

Strawberry vending machines are popping up everywhere, especially in Belgium. With summer just around the corner, the demand for these 'summer kings' is on the rise, yet not every consumer has the time or inclination to visit a store. It seems that vending machines are maintaining their popularity gained during the COVID-19 period. With the start of the new season, this also marks a peak period for Geerts Strawberries, which, in addition to its supply to the Hoogstraten Cooperative, operates three vending machines. "You're not dependent on closing times, but still have access to fresh strawberries every day," says Marc Geerts of the eponymous nursery from Verrebroek.

Marc grew up in the sector, with his parents previously owning a mixed farm in the same region. "They also grew a small amount of open-ground strawberries," he explains. "I wanted to take the step into agriculture/horticulture anyway, so when I left school, I decided to take over and expand my parents' strawberry segment. Initially with tunnels, but since 2008 we have a greenhouse where we grow strawberries on substrate."

Here he cultivates the Sonsation and Favori varieties, more than half of which are marketed through the Hoogstraten Cooperative, and the rest via the vending machines. "Our own direct sales have gradually grown over the last few years. Ultimately, we also wanted to focus more on the short supply chain, allowing us to nicely combine these sales channels now."

And so, the busiest time of the year has started again for Marc. "We're busy with Favori, but this week we also started with the Sonsations. However, we haven't had a lot of sun yet, so the rush has been a bit delayed. You see it slowly starting, so if the sun consistently shows itself, I expect we'll see the biggest peak again between mid-May and early June. At the same time, demand will also rise, as better weather also increases the craving for strawberries. In any case, they are of very high quality, so until November we will have delicious strawberries available again."

Strawberry vending machines
For this sales channel, the vending machines are thus gaining a larger share for the family business. "I think since COVID-19, the popularity of the vending machines really exploded. People found it hard or impossible to go to the store, making the minimal contact and convenience of a vending machine ideal. It really accelerated from there, which is quite remarkable. The idea was that the popularity would fade once people could go wherever they wanted again. Yet, it has continued its rise in the years that followed. I think this has to do with the busy lives of today's consumers, making it not always easy to get your fruit within certain opening hours. Then, stopping by a vending machine in the evening or on Sunday is a nice alternative for fresh quality."

It's also one of the reasons Marc has invested more in them. "We now have 3 vending machines in Verrebroek, Meerdonk, and Sint-Gillis-Waas. We used to do home sales, but eventually, you're constantly searching for the perfect opening hours to attract as many customers as possible. You try to find the ideal moments to, besides the work in cultivation, welcome people. Then it's very convenient that you don't have to think about this with a vending machine. The only challenge is sometimes that you're dependent on technology instead of dealing with people. Sometimes a machine can malfunction or there can be some technical problems, which can result in extra care. They're often not the biggest problems, but something you always have to keep an eye on."

Growth market
Dirk Mulder, retail expert at ING, previously indicated to RTL that sales via vending machines are a growth market. "In Japan, vending machines are almost everywhere, where you can buy almost anything. Young people are busy with school, work, and their social lives, so they are looking for a bit of convenience." He also sees that contactless payment is an important factor in popularity.

In addition to the convenience consumers are looking for, staff shortages in many sectors also lead entrepreneurs to install vending machines earlier, Mulder thinks, RTL wrote. "Furthermore, with advancing technology, you can now check from a distance whether the vending machine is still filled and whether the products are still fresh. You can even predict what the demand will be through data," says Mulder.

Family business
For now, Marc Geerts will stick to three vending machines. "For our volumes, it's actually the perfect number. You also don't want too much, ending up with empty vending machines. The strawberry supply fluctuates throughout the season, and it's quite intensive to refill everything daily, so three is a very nice number for us. Moreover, we obviously prefer quality to quantity. You can always want to expand, but we see that we benefit more from specialization, and moreover, you can keep that family touch instead of working with 30 workers. This applies to a possible expansion in vending machines, but also in acreage. We are happy with how things are going. However, we always look at innovations in packaging. Especially for special days, like Mother's or Father's Day, we like to experiment with possible new designs. With Mother's Day approaching, we are also happy that we have beautiful strawberries to deliver," concludes Marc.

For more information:
Marc Geerts
Marc Geerts Strawberries
Zwaantje 52
9130 Verrebroek, Belgium
+32 479 65 24 15
[email protected]

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