Technology tends to hasten during difficult times, so imagine what advancements a pandemic can bring to an industry that survives it. Contactless transactions—among other high-tech tools for vending, micro markets and office coffee service—were at the forefront of industry discussions throughout the COVID-19 health crisis.

As a result, the adoption of unattended retail technologies is on the rise. Automatic Merchandiser’s latest State of the Industry survey showed VMS deployment increasing from 51% in 2019 to almost 60% in 2020. Use of telemeters and cashless devices managed remotely through the cloud is also on the rise, increasing from 29% in 2019 to 36% in 2020.

For the majority of U.S. operators, the pandemic has meant an acceleration in their digital transformation. Here are four high-tech complements that are almost certain to enhance micro markets over the next year few years. They include solutions for delivering fresh foods to workplaces and novel vending machine counterparts that can work alongside micro markets.

1. On-demand and contactless food delivery

Imagine a remote ordering solution that delivers fresh, local food to your clients. Avanti Markets did and designed such a concept with micro market and vending operators in mind. Operators can use SimpliGet to set menus supporting local food orders that are delivered to secure lockers or other designated pickup areas. Customers place their orders on the SimpliGet website with funds from their Market Card accounts. Additional payment options will be added soon, Avanti said.

Customers will enjoy the benefits of other common food delivery services, but without the fees and tips typically associated with those apps, according to Avanti. They can expect freshly made options delivered during a set window, with contactless delivery to ensure a safe experience. Notifications arrive via text and email messages, so there is no wondering when food has arrived.

“We expect SimpliGet to be a sea change event for our operators who are working diligently to meet changing demands of customers,” said Avanti product head Lawrence Lerner.

Menus, order cutoffs and delivery times are managed through a companion SimpliGet Manage website. Orders are handled through active and future queues, and fulfillment is tracked by the foodservice provider. This flexibility allows operators to use their own commissaries, outside kitchens or third-party food services. Menus can be rotated or changed as desired. Deliveries are made to pickup counters or Avanti’s optional lockers.

The locker system allows for contactless distribution. Delivery personnel place the order in a secured cubby with a QR code. The customer will use a scan code sent by email or SMS message to retrieve their order from the lockers once notified of delivery. Lockers run a UV-sterilization sequence after an order has been removed. If lockers are not in use, an operator can drop off an order at a designated pickup counter.

2. Dining around the clock

If last year showed us anything, it’s that touchless, self-service and order-ahead options will be requirements for many customers going forward.

Among the latest innovations in 365 Retail Markets’ tool chest is 365Dining, a kitchen management and ordering system. Patrons place their orders whenever they want from their 365Pay app or 365Dining can also be used as a self-checkout system in a micro market or as a stand-alone cashier system in a café settling.

Because of these flexible features, St. Louis-based Executive Dining began deploying 365Dining technology last year. “At that time, we began implementing the self-checkout option, which our customers adopted quickly,” said Executive Dining Express District Manager David Porter. “The user-friendly format and software speed help move customers through the pay stations efficiently.”

Executive Dining is no stranger to change. Founded in 2001 as the corporate foodservice division of Chiles Foodservice, Executive Dining was created to meet the growing demand for restaurant-quality food in work environments. Executive Dining Express—created in 2019 to provide office and factory environments with fresh food, beverages and snacks 24 hours a day—specializes in micro markets.

The 365Dining platform has given Executive Dining’s customers the ability to purchase fresh foods 24/7 and to have self-checkout functionality. Its order-ahead option allows customers to select menu items and pay from their desks or any other on-site location. “After ordering, customers can choose rapid pickup at the café or have their food delivered on-site,” Porter said.

An optional locker system is part of 365Dining’s suite. The tamper-proof lockers promote contactless food deliveries by holding items in individual cubbies that require a code to open. The insulated cubbies can keep food hot or cold for at least 30 minutes.

3. Robotic micro bakeries

San Francisco-based Le Bread Xpress Inc. markets Bake Xpress, a robotic device promoted as the world’s only vending solution that can dispense pastries, pizza and artisan sandwiches—freshly baked at time of order.

Bake Xpress micro bakeries offer up to six menu choices per machine, ranging from croissants to pizzas. Each food item is prepared and partially baked at a traditional bakery before being stored in the Bake Xpress refrigeration unit. Selected items are freshly baked in Bake Xpress’ onboard smart oven before being dispensed. In use, operators can specify Bake Xpress menus based on their customers’ preferences, choosing from 25 artisan foods created in partnerships with suppliers nationwide.

Canteen Vending Services, the nation’s largest micro market operator, has been testing Bake Xpress machines at corporate and university sites in the San Francisco Bay Area since late 2019 and will be placing them nationwide this year.

“Bake Xpress gives us the ability to offer freshly baked food around the clock to complement our staffed cafeteria services, and in locations where we previously did not provide hot meals,” said Canteen Chief Strategy and Innovation Officer Michael Coffey.

4. Artificial intelligence

ViaTouch Media’s VICKI arrived on the scene four years ago as a “smart-shelf” vending system using iris-authentication technology. It was initially designed to complement high-profile retail brands and venues either as a module that could snap into store shelving or as a stand-alone vending machine. Replacing traditional vend mechanisms that use moving parts, VICKI features a secured door to protect products and allow access. The door unlocks once payment is authorized. VICKI is also a virtual assistant, and, like Amazon’s Alexa, she speaks to and listens to customers.

AI-powered VICKIs are being deployed in traditional workplace breakroom venues. ViaTouch Media recently teamed up with cashless payments leader MM Hayes to provide safe, contactless shopping and fresh foods solutions to health care locations. Additionally, VICKI is getting a lot of attention in the cannabis vending sector where it’s the platform of choice for Chemesis International Inc., a CBD product distributor. The machine’s climate control system supports ambient and refrigerated operation.

High-profile brands and retailers are using VICKI to merchandise product and collect consumer data. Select 7-Eleven stores have been merchandising $10 to $50 items through VICKI. Building off this c-store model, micro market operators have an opportunity to vend high-end nonfood goods behind VICKI’s secure door, explained ViaTouch founder and CEO Tom Murn. Think health and beauty products and smartphone accessories, among other impulse items.

Make it a priority

From fresh food delivery solutions and on-demand baked goods to AI-powered vending machines, operators have promising options to enrich the micro market experience for their customers. SimpliGet, 365Dining, Bake Xpress and VICKI are examples of complementary technologies available today.

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