Vending and micro market businesses in the United States did their best to adjust to—and survive—the severe economic realities of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020
Those realities affected workplace service providers differently, of course. Operators primarily serving locations with essential workers onsite held the line, and in some cases, increased total sales. Operators servicing office locations, professional sites, public venues and schools, by comparison, experienced significant sales declines.
Food, snack and beverage sales in workplaces have always been directly tied to employment. According to the Congressional Research Service, the U.S. workforce shed 22.1 million jobs from January to April 2020 alone, intensely impacting vending and micro markets. In April 2020, the unemployment rate reached 14.8%—the highest rate observed since the Bureau of Labor Statistics began collecting data in 1948. A year later, nationwide unemployment still remained higher (at 6.1%) than it had been in February 2020 (3.5%).
April 2020 also ushered in a new era of remote work, immediately and significantly reducing office populations, and foreshadowing a shift in the way much of the workforce might operate in the future. As of December, 71% of office workers were doing their jobs from home all or most of the time, per Pew Research Center data. Even with jobs coming back by the end of 2020 (the unemployment rate stood at 6.7% in December), the abrupt closure of offices and workplaces—and subsequent transition to remote work for millions of employed Americans—earlier in the year had the greatest impact on vending and micro market performance throughout the year.
It’s not terribly surprising, then, that Automatic Merchandiser’s annual State of the Industry (SOI) report on vending and micro markets indicates a 45% decline in revenue—from $24.2 billion in 2019 to $13.3 billion in 2020. The pandemic effectively erased a decade of consecutive revenue growth reported annually by convenience service operators that began when the Great Recession ended in 2009.
This year’s report tells the story of the industry’s will to survive. Here are some key highlights from Automatic Merchandiser’s 2020 SOI report.
Some 47% of all survey participants designated their business as a full-line operation with vending, micro markets, refrigerated/frozen foods, and office coffee service (OCS), compared to 41% in 2019. This suggests more full-line firms added micro markets in 2020. Operators offering only micro markets account for fewer than 3% of all respondents in the report’s sampling.
Nearly half (46%) of the operations surveyed employ one to five people, down from 53% in 2019. The second-highest employee range is 100-plus (13%), compared to 16% year over year.
Roughly 20% operations ran a single route in 2020, compared to 17% in 2019. The number of operations with 50 routes or more, meanwhile, dropped 3%. Fewer stops and reduced inventory requirements drove route consolidation. Fewer route acquisitions occurred in 2020. The exception: partial divestitures, which increased to 12%, compared to 6% in 2019.
The number of operators who leased some or all their cold drink vending machines held steady at 70%.
Packaged cold drink venders and glass-front merchandisers were the most widely operated machine types in 2020. The number of full-line coffee, refrigerated and frozen food machines continued to decline in absolute numbers and as a percentage of the equipment mix. Sales of fresh foods and frozen, on the other hand, increased market share in micro market settings.
Vended cold drinks (sodas, water, energy drinks, juices, etc.), vended candy (chocolate and nonchocolate), vended snacks (salty items, bars, mixes, etc.) and vended confections (pastries, cookies, etc.) contributed most to 2020’s annual revenue.
Most operators charged $1 or more for a vended (post-mix) hot beverage (e.g., fresh brew, freeze-dried coffee, cappuccino, cocoa or soup).
Most respondents (75%) said they offered “healthy” or “better-for-you” items in vending machines in 2020, down from 82% in 2019. Like snacking trends at home, consumption of indulgent snack foods also increased at workplaces last year. In micro markets, all respondents reported offering “healthy” meal, snack and beverage options.
Notable Losses and Gains
In 2020, almost 60% of operators reported substantial losses in the number of locations they served. (By comparison, nearly 60% reported location gains in 2019.) Nearly one-third (28%) of respondents said the number of locations they operated did not change.
Nearly 75% of survey participants said total sales declined between 10% and 70% in 2020; just 17% reported total declines of 10% or more in 2019. Total year-over-year sales, meanwhile, remained flat for 6% of respondents and increased for 11%.
Cashless acceptance on vending machines improved in 2020. Only 11% of this year’s respondents said they don’t use any cashless payment systems, compared to 16% in 2020. Operators reporting 100% cashless vending rose to 22% in 2020, up from 14% in 2019.
There were also improvements in the use of data collection technologies in 2020. Operators used “pandemic downtime ” to make networking upgrades from manual and handheld processes to smart devices and telemetry systems. Additionally, the number of operators using vending management systems reached 60% in 2020, up from 50% in 2019.
Micro Market Observations
The number of operations with micro markets last year was 43%—unchanged from 2019. Of those micro market operators, 44% reported an increase in the number of markets they offered in 2020.
Most markets occupied manufacturing and office locations last year. Increases occurred in those private sites, as well as in hospitals and other semi-public locations, including large apartment complexes.
Micro markets were more widely recognized in 2020 as a corporate foodservice solution, sometimes replacing—or complementing—sited cafeterias. What’s more, the number of micro markets functioning as cafeteria alternatives increased in 2020. In a separate survey conducted in early 2021, 52 of 60 operators said they “definitely” think it’s possible that the micro market could replace manual workplace cafés.
The vending and micro market industry has never experienced the breadth and depth of changes that occurred in 2020. Will the pandemic be a blip on the industry’s radar? Or will it have long-term lasting effects on the way vending and micro market operators do business? Probably both. A recovery is underway, so it will be interesting to see how much the industry advances in 2021.
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