Digitalization is increasingly creating possibilities for the use of vending machines. This is an easy way for growers to market products via a short-chain. And these days, vending machines are increasingly finding their way into cities too.
"Agricultural businesses have always been one of our important, sizeable user groups," says Sander Sciarone. He is a director at Innovend, an unmanned sales solutions provider in the Netherlands. "They used to have stalls where they sold their products. These usually included a jar in which customers could put the money."
"Vending machines replaced those stalls. You chose a box, paid, and then could open the hatch to take the product. We developed that concept further, digitizing several processes. We've been offering this modular system since 2015. Many of our clients have been prospering and have since grown," Sander says.
"They want to refill these machines less often. And there are more and more larger, unmanned stores popping up. In these, people select products on a screen. After paying, all the selected hatches open. Or an electronic hoist collects the products in the vending machine. Our customers value convenience and speed."
In addition to the existing growth trend, the COVID-19 pandemic boosted sales immensely. "Our machine sales have risen sharply since June 2020. And, perhaps even better, so have our the sales from our clients' machines. Consumers are avoiding crowded supermarkets," Sander continues.
"They started buying more directly from growers and farmers. Some growers are selling three to four times more. That's compared to the same time last year. These sales shot up after the first lockdown and have mostly remained high. That means people have incorporated this into their shopping routine."
Innovend offers intelligent, unmanned sales systems based on three things - a user environment, the vending machines, and its online control or 'brains'. These vending machines can be configured in all kinds of ways. They can be refrigerated or non-refrigerated. People can pay by cash, bank card, or contactless.
It can have different sizes of lockers. And lit or unlit door types to attractively display products. Or they can be completely windowless for pre-placed orders. The machines can even have push systems. These can contain a more sizable product stock. So, you can combine various sales systems and easily scale them up.
You can control the latest machines locally from the cloud. Business owners can follow sales in real-time, manage stock and create reports. "Via the filling advice list, for example, you know exactly which and how many products you need to take along to refill the machine entirely. Say you want to rearrange the machine and reserve more lockers for, for instance, asparagus. These might suddenly be selling fast. You can prepare the changes beforehand and then implement them while filling the machine," explains Sciarone.
There is a noticeable, surprising side effect. This new way of selling stimulates growers' to think in a marketing-oriented way. "In the digital environment, you need photos to link products to the lockers. More and more business owners want to put a face to their wares. They give them brand names or even put them in special packaging. Also, it's very easy to link your webshop to the online environment. That, in turn, creates an additional sales channel."
It is not only growers that see the advantage in stand-alone sales solutions. Other businesses do too. For example, a Dutch greengrocer has a 24/7 vending machine containing meals. This is placed adjacent to his farm store. Many people think about getting an easy healthy meal right around closing time. The idea is that customers will not be disappointed if they arrive just after closing.
And a Belgian greengrocer recently opened an unmanned store across from its regular store. That store provides space for customers who want a quiet, quick shopping experience. And it remains open for longer. Some of the machines have glass doors so that shoppers can choose what they want on the spot. Others consist of closed lockers. The greengrocer fills these with pre-placed orders. People can then pick these up at their leisure, without having to wait or visit the store.
These vending machines are also finding their way into cities. A catering company has set up a meal vending machine. It is in a converted shipping container in a parking lot. Another Dutch company has six unmanned stores. These are in shopping centers in the Arnhem area. They carry fruit and dairy products.
Bringing these short chains to cities is a promising development. Innovend itself is also investing in this. They have partnered with a farm in the Netherlands. In June, they opened an unmanned store in a Dutch shopping center. It sells products from growers and farmers within a 30 km radius.
"There have been plenty of cherries, strawberries, and asparagus sold in the last few months. Summer has been truly successful. And we're anxious to see how things will go in the winter. We're selling cauliflower too. And customers are already coming to do their food shopping."
"Buying directly from the farm is trendy. And unmanned stores offer true expansion opportunities. We want to participate in that. By doing so, we can produce improved, easier, and nicer-looking solutions than those we already have," concludes Sander.