The demand for round-the-clock access to high-quality products and the realities of labor usage at off-peak times continues to challenge foodservice providers, who have responded with various solutions, from beefed-up traditional vending machines to unmanned 24-hour micromarkets and automated c-stores.
But vending machines are rather impersonal—you don’t get to touch or examine a product until after purchase—and suffer from a somewhat downscale popular image, while micromarkets require restricted environments where access can be controlled for security reasons.
That leaves a considerable market gap and one that Convenience Solutions by Sodexo has sought to fill with a product called On the Spot. Convenience Solutions is a unit of Sodexo that operates vending, micromarkets, office refreshments and pantry services for clients.
On the Spot superficially looks like a glass-fronted vending machine but incorporates sophisticated technology that allows a customer to handle and examine its contents prior to purchase. A credit or debit card swipe gives access to the machine’s selections and sensors track what products are removed from their slots and if they are returned.
Customers are charged only for those that have been removed and not replaced once the door is closed to end the transaction. The units can be adapted to take proprietary forms of card payment such as campus declining balance cards as well as commercial credit and debit cards.
“It offers more of a retail experience over traditional fresh food vending,” explains Shawn Murphy, product development director for Sodexo Convenience Solutions. “Consumers can shop the cooler, pick up an item, read the nutrition label and expiration date much like in a café or micromarket.”
The first On the Spot units were deployed in the fall of 2016, and over two dozen are expected to be active by the end of February, per Murphy. Sites include businesses, hospitals and colleges.
The product range is varied, from fresh grab-and-go items like sandwiches and salads to packaged snacks and beverages. The units have a refrigeration component to allow the storage of perishables.
In some hospital locations, the units serve as round-the-clock gift retailers, even incorporating fresh flowers and candy for visitors to purchase before seeing in-patient loved ones.
The units track and transmit sales and stock level data in real time so replenishment can be timely and adjusted to individual site demand patterns. The fresh grab-and-go items are assembled and delivered either from an onsite Sodexo-operated café kitchen if the On the Spot unit is a complement to a manual foodservice operation at the site, or from a nearby commissary if it’s a standalone.
On the Spot adapts to different site needs, from serving as the only retail food outlet at a site to one that is part of a larger operation.
“It is spot on for clients who are looking to have nutritious foods and beverages beyond the normal service hours,” Murphy says, “and also for a small account where a full café or even a micromarket may not be feasible. The great thing about it is that it can be open to the public: that’s the biggest difference from micromarkets.”
That latter factor has helped On the Spot grow its presence in the college/university and hospital segments, where the security issues surrounding micromarkets have hampered implementation.
“Micromarkets work awesomely in corporate services because of the captive audiences, but this solution has been really good for our campus and healthcare business,” Murphy offers. “For instance, you can have one in the emergency room of a hospital, dorm or even athletics building where a café may not be available 24/7.”
Unlike micromarkets, the units require little in the way of infrastructure adjustments, take up minimal space and can be combined with conventional vending machines in a traditional break room vending cluster. They can also be adapted to the needs of each particular location in terms of product mix and number of units deployed.