Vending machines have to be the least sexy robots on the planet. They can’t pick up a ball, beat international go champions or even tell you how many 47-year olds live in Peru. All they can do is dispense junk food and anaemic coffee when you can’t be bothered to venture 100m to a real shop.
It’s all very World’s Fair 1964 - the past, not the future of automation. Right?
Not so fast, says John Broderick, chief executive of Manchester-based Broderick’s, a family firm which provides and maintains vending machines for offices, universities and airports.
‘Instead of being a distress purchase, I’m trying to be where people go for refreshment, not just a snack in the afternoon,’ he says.
Broderick’s machines are ‘interactive’. They have a touch screen, which he says is a way to ‘reach out to the next generation’, but its real value is in showing adverts for the likes of Nestle, Mars, Walkers and Coca-Cola.
‘I’m in the channel the brands forgot,’ Broderick says. ‘When someone presses latte, it’ll play a Kit Kat advert and push sales. I’ve never seen anyone buy a Kit Kat from a billboard.’
Aside from providing that advertiser’s Holy Grail of real time data showing the effectiveness of a campaign, Broderick’s vending machines also provide a platform for smaller, often local firms that can’t afford expensive TV campaigns.
Broderick, who took over the family firm with his brother in 1993, introduced the first prototype of these interactive machines in 2011, something he describes as a ‘massive risk’.
‘It was a gimmick at first, but people are now specifying vending machines with screens. They want to be able to put their company’s intranet on there.’
The result for Broderick’s has been growth in the face of some pretty miserable market conditions. After all, the rise of the barista and Starbucks culture at the expense of the humble vending machine has bucked the otherwise clear trend of robots beating humans.
The vending sector, dominated in the UK by foreign multinationals, has been declining at a rate of around 6% a year, while Broderick’s turnover has nearly doubled since 2012 to £15m this year.
This isn’t all because of the touch screens, which are in fact only the greatest in a long line of innovations at the firm, from replacing plastic with paper cups, to introducing healthy, local and luxury options and adapting to the cashless economy.
‘53% of British people go to work with no coins in their pocket, so we decided to fit Apple Pay and note loaders. We’ve seen a 16% increase in turnover just by putting better and more payment systems in. It’s something as simple as investing £500, but you get the cost of that back quickly,’ Broderick says.
Though Broderick is a keen supporter of the Northern Powerhouse, he’s got his eyes on the whole country. This, he accepts, means cracking London.
‘When I drive around the city of Manchester, the big businesses I don’t have tend to be the ones with head offices in London. We already look after Stansted airport, Sky, Diageo, but we’re going open our own showrooms in London soon too.’
So what’s the future for vending? Interactivity is here to stay, Broderick says, with all new machines in development now following his in being touch screen.
‘Cash will disappear too, the coin slot will have gone. And you’ll see machines vending far beyond what they currently do in terms of snacks. We need to turn vending into a retailer and get vending trendy, which it’s struggled to do for a lot of years.’