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Grab and Go Micromarkets

12/14/2015

Grab and Go Micromarkets

The advent of the micromarket either takes the full-line vending revolution to the next step, or constitutes a second revolution of its own. In either case, the concept of small, flexible self-checkout "grab and go" foodservice facilities has aroused curiosity and stimulated experimentation to a degree perhaps not seen for four decades.

This was evident at a new feature of the educational program at this year's Atlantic Coast Exposition: an early-bird panel discussion of micromarkets, held on the day before the formal opening of the show. The panel was made up of operators who are running micromarkets, and the session was enlivened by questions from the audience. It was an informative and thought-provoking event.

What struck us about the discussion was its remarkable resemblance to similar exchanges that took place almost half a century ago, when refrigerated food vending still was a hot topic; we often thought of the late Yogi Berra's comment, "It's like déjà vu all over again."

The commercial use of temperature-controlled coin-operated equipment to sell wrapped single servings of freshly prepared food began, rather tentatively, in the early 1950s. There was a large potential market for an efficient way to make fresh food available to the third shifts in factories working around the clock. Vending operators, who had enjoyed great success in applying their new hot and cold cup beverage machines to the similar need for 24/7 refreshment service, saw the new food venders as the next step in becoming the dominant in-plant foodservice providers.

They were right, but the industry had to overcome a number of challenges along the way. The pioneers in refrigerated food vending had to find a source for prepared sandwiches, portioned salads and entrées. In some markets, there were "sandwich houses" with central kitchens supplying mobile catering trucks and retail clients. In most, though, there weren't, and operators often found that their best option was to build a commissary kitchen adjacent to the warehouse. They also had to devise systems for holding prepared foods overnight, protecting it on the route and pulling it promptly on its "sell-by" date.

The solutions developed for these purposes were extensively discussed in the late 1960s and early '70s, when the industry began to assimilate the business models invented by the trailblazing vended foodservice operators. While many operating companies continue to build on those models, the great national shift to "grazing" has brought a multitude of single-serve portion-packed foods and an ever-widening range of packaged snack categories into a workplace market that has been tilting away from high-volume blue-collar manufacturing locations. Many operators who have entered the industry over the past two decades have seen no need to become foodservice experts. And many of the veteran organizations that excel at foodservice have folded into larger companies.

Micromarkets are changing this picture. More and more "four-C" operators who don't see the need to vend fresh food definitely do recognize a demand for micromarkets. Operators again are planning in-house commissaries to take control of their food offerings, but for micromarkets this time around.

The consensus is that micromarkets require fresh food. Just as in full-line vending, a micromarket operator who offers a distinctively excellent foodservice program gains a real competitive edge.

Much of the ACE panel discussion therefore raised questions and proposed answers that would have been recognized at once by a full-line vendor in 1966. At the same time, operators today have much more sophisticated tools for dealing with the perennial challenges of unattended foodservice.

For example, one of the very first uses of label-printing programs that could handle barcoding was in vended foodservice sales analysis. The method was to instruct drivers to return all the unsold food pulled from the machines; the commissary staff scanned the labels before discarding the products, or selling them for animal feed. They maintained a database that tracked every item that went out and came back, and used that information to adjust the menus in each machine, at the line-item level, continually. This can be done much more quickly and comprehensively with today's sales analysis software. The ability of today's networked "intelligent" equipment to adjust pricing remotely and/or automatically to spur sales of items that are nearing their date-codes is another powerful tool for minimizing food waste. (One operator on the ACE panel observed that, with fresh food, "fast nickels are better than slow dimes," a sentiment we have heard before.)

One of the very salutary influences of micromarkets on the vending industry is that they are encouraging operators to take a new look at their operational processes in vending, too. This is certain to have a very positive effect. Many good ideas developed four decades ago are even better now, and usually are much easier to implement.

Source: Tim Sanford for Vending Times

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