This article is an introduction to what you need to know to fill vending machines. You may also want to check out our step-by-step, vending machine filling guide.Filling vending machines is an art. It requires both muscle memory and an expanded awareness of the entire machine at once. It's so very easy to miss something wrong with a machine while you're focused on another aspect of it.

Before you learn, you need to know your goal. Are you just trying to get product into a machine? No! You want to fill a machine well.

Here are the attributes of a well-filled machine. Keeping these standards is your goal for every vending machine:

  • Fresh product
  • A variety of product that also has enough of the popular products so they won't sell out
  • A working cash system from coin slot to cash box
  • A working electrical and product dispensing system
  • Clean surfaces inside and out
  • Items in the correct places at the correct prices with the correct labels
  • A record of where items go and a record of how much has been sold

This is a lot of information to keep track of at once and you shouldn't try to fix all these things at once.

Instead, you can learn to do each of these tasks sequentially, often times very fast. You must learn to both be aware of when changes in any of the above categories need to be made, and what sequence during the filling process you need to make them. You can lose a lot of efficiency by doing things in the wrong order.

What sequence of actions should I take?

Here is an overall order for filling a machine that you can then modify to suit the needs of the current situation. Generally I go in this order:

  • I open the machine up and take the readings.
  • I fix any problems that the machine may have.
  • I collect the cash and balance the change fund.
  • With what I have, I fill what product I can into the machine.
  • If I don't have a cart or need extra things from the truck, I write them down.
  • I return to the truck and get extra items that I may need.

This is the general process of filling any machine. It is the same or similar for cold food, snack, beverage, coffee or any other kind of machine. It is also similar for filling multiple machines at a time. Snack and beverage machines are often next to each other, but I tend to organize tasks in sequence by machine, not by task. This means that I won't take the reading for both machines before filling both machines.

On the other hand, if the machines are of the same type (two beverage for instance) I do steps 1-4 on both sequentially and then combine #5 and #6 for both of them.

Little distinctions like this will be easy to make once you have an overall process.

What to bring into the location

Always be as prepared as possible when going into a location. Stopping what you're doing to go get one little thing out of the truck can drastically decrease your efficiency over a whole day. If the location always drinks a certain kind of soda, bring that soda in with you while checking the machines.

On the other hand, don't bring too much in. This will cause your cart to be loaded down and your movement to be slower. For instance, if I know a location has a high snack volume I will bring in a fully loaded stack of snack trays. I could walk in and take an inventory of what is needed, but it's more efficient to just bring in trays. On the other hand if just a few snacks are needed, I don't need to bring in a large stack of trays, especially if I can bring in the needed beverages instead.

Items to bring in every time

  • Carry pens, paper, your phone, your keys, stickers, extra change and money for refunds, and your change fund with you. That way you don't have to make an extra trip for something small that you may forget. Get a key clip for your belt.

  • If your machine has a history of breaking, it's also a good idea to carry a small screwdriver.

  • Bring ziplock bags for your money and always have a place to store them once they are bulging with cash.

Little things like this will save you big over time. Can you imagine if you were a carpenter and you had to climb down a thirty foot ladder just to get your hammer and nails?

Interruptions don't just take the time that it takes to solve the interruption. They also decrease your efficiency because you tend to lose focus as well. If you prepare for these little interruptions then you will be better prepared to handle larger interruptions, such as when a customer wants to purchase an item or talk to you about a refund.

To prepare for these, you may want to read about skillsets for vending route drivers.

Don't spend excessive time trying to predict what you will need. This decreases efficiency almost as much as not preparing at all.

Confused yet?

To make it simple, it is helpful to have a standard set up that you take with you into a location. That way you don't have to think about each individual thing as you put it on your cart. For instance, when I stack pre-loaded snack trays, I don't think about each individual snack that I'm bringing. If I know that the location will need something extra or special, then I throw it in the top cart before I head in.

Putting items on your cart

Especially with beverages, try to stack product on your cart in vertical columns of the same type. This is especially true with locations with multiple beverage machines and types of beverages. If you have water, powerade, and soda, and each beverage machines has a mix of both (which should be the case), in order to not go back and forth between machines, you should have the water in one stack, the powerade in another stack, and the soda in another stack. This will be a little bit less structurally sound than mixing your items together so don't stack them too high!

Generally speaking, you want to only move each item off the cart and onto the shelf of the machine once. If you have to move things out of the way to get to other things, then you didn't stack them correctly.

To avoid this, list the items you need in your machine sequentially on your note pad, and then stack them on the back of your truck for loading on to the cart in the reverse sequence. This is because you stack the beverages twice: Once on the back of your truck and once on the cart. Ignore this if you use a van or side-loading vehicle.

If you want better organization for your products in your vehicle, read about how to load your vending truck.

Preventing injury at a location

Route work is hard physical work. You spend all day lifting and moving cases of soda and snacks. You will get tired, so organize things such that you do as little bending over and heavy lifting as possible. This is why you use a cart instead of carrying items into your location.

Most soda machines come with a pull-out shelf. This is because the stack inevitably extends up higher allowing for ease of taking out the product contained in the trays and placing them onto the shelf, which is usually between waist and head height. If you find that your stack is forcing you to do too much bending over or heavy lifting from the ground, consider taking a crate with you that is empty but serves as a platform for elevating the stack of trays or crates. A chocolate cooler also makes for a great platform.

Make the next location easier

Always make your future self's life easier. This means you should clean up your work area - both in your truck and at your location - as you go. You don't know how much energy your future self will have, so assume its going to be less than you have now. Not doing this will compound over time which will make the end of your day harder. In addition to this, cleaning up as you go allows you to more easily focus your attention on what else needs to be done. It also gives a more professional appearance. After all, customers see into the back of your truck all the time.

Rotating product

Always be mindful of the expiration dates of your products. Get in the habit of checking the dates on your product constantly.

A bigger picture of all your locations is helpful here, as you may be able to sell a product that isn't selling at this location somewhere else. We have locations that just eat through chips with almost no discrimination. At these locations I put in all of my short-dated snacks, or product that has a very short time before it expires. That way I maximize the amount of snacks that are used.

Inevitably some attrition, or products that for whatever reason can't be sold, will happen. Too much attrition can easily cut into your profit margin. It may seem like a lot of work to check dates, but once you get in the habit of doing so it not only becomes effortless to do, but since you'll do it so often you'll hardly ever have a crisis where you have a machine full of expired product.

Because of this possibility, it's important to have an extra empty crate or two so that there is a place to store the short-dated and expired product on your truck. Though these kinds of product are similar, keep them separate to avoid throwing away product that is still good. Obviously, if you see short- dated product in a machine, rotate it accordingly. Depending on your other locations that sell similar product or what you do with short-dated product, it's up to you to decide when to take it out. When making my decision, I always consider the service period on the location against the existing short-dated product and how soon it will expire.

If the machine has shown that that product did not sell well, I take out product that will not make it to the next service period.

If I can't reasonably expect, based on past buying behavior, that this many items will sell in the allotted time, then I will take them out. I tend to be more aggressive with this practice with machines with longer service schedules since the likelihood is much higher than machines with short service schedules that the sales volume will fluctuate or that problems will crop up which stop customers from buying the product in the first place.

For example, if a bag of chips in a machine has 10 days left on its expiration, and I go to that location once a week, I will most likely leave that bag in the machine. However, if the bag in question is in a row of chips that haven't sold since the last service, I will take it out. In addition, if there are five bags of chips with the same expiration and only 2 sold since the last service, then I will take them all out.

This is based on the fact that I acted in a similar way towards expired product in the past, which I have. If you are currently changing your habits, then I would get more aggressive about rotating in the beginning, and then slowly ease up on it as you see the rhythm of sales for that particular product in that location.

The dynamic of this changes with each machine and each location. You may sell tons of one kind of product in a machine at one location and none at another. This is an example where you can be mindful of what machines at what locations sell consistently high volumes of one particular item. If you know that you have a location that sells 12 of one item in 3 days, then you can let that item go longer in another machine where it doesn't sell as frequently then if you didn't have the higher volume machine as a back up.

When you get really get good at this, you start seeing your machines as part of one larger puzzle where you can take certain items and fit them into other machines. It becomes like a game and it can be quite enjoyable.

How to track units sold of a specific product

That system is great, but how do you know which products are selling and which aren't?

Use stickers to easily visually tell you how much something is selling. Think of each machine as a mini business with their own mini inventory. Any good business owner wants to keep track of their inventory right? Yet writing down what you put in a machine every time is time consuming, so I suggest you use the sticker-menu method.

In this method you place colored stickers on the wall at the depth where you place your product in the machine. Even really high volume selling machines don't have every row completely filled, so you will almost always use stickers. This is a very fast way that you can show yourself what you did in the past. Just one machine is difficult to remember everything you did, let alone hundreds of machines. Get used to putting stickers on every row so it's easy to tell how much an item sold since the last service period. Remember to continually adjust them.

How to track machine inventory

This works great until you sell completely out of one item. Unless you set up every machine exactly the same way and memorize how you set it up, you need a way to tell what has sold. If you don't 'have a way to do this, then you will have to guess.

This takes time and it most likely results in less sales in your machine over time. If you are a customer who just loves cherry coke and all of sudden the machine doesn't sell it because the vendor didn't know what to put in the row, you're going to be very unhappy.

The best case scenario if you go this route is that said unhappy customer tells you to put their favorite item back in the machine while you're there servicing the machine. Often times customers will approach me and let me know what they want. You can't rely on this though, because the worst case scenario is that you lose that customer completely, which will be very bad since obviously they bought a lot of that item. It is important to create a menu that corresponds to all the selections in the machine.

How do I make a menu?

I use a representative visual grid on a piece of cardboard or 8x11 paper where there is ample space to write in each square on the grid.

It's useful to develop a shorthand here, where symbols mean different things. For example:

  • A name means you put that product in that row, whereas crossing out a name means you tried that product in this machine before. This will help you in efficiently finding the highest selling product so you won't put the same product in the same place twice.
  • I usually cross off items that I've put in the machine before, but for whatever reason I'm not putting in now. If I didn't have a particular item this time and I put something else in the slot for it in the machine, I won't cross it off on the menu, I'll just write the new item below it. This is to show me next time that I have a choice between these two items in that row.
  • A happy face next to name means that it was a great seller. This you will determine if it sold all out or mostly all out.
  • A zero next to them name, on the contrary, means that nothing sold and you should take that product elsewhere. A lot of products with zeros next to them in the same selection means that there may be something wrong with that shelf or row. As you can see, this is also a good way to help track and diagnose machine malfunctions.

These simple visual shorthands decrease the amount that I try redundant product. In determining volume of sales, it will be difficult to go by the machines accounting system, since it only tells you total sales, not necessarily sales for each row. By using this menu system with the sticker system, you'll be able to determine if something is a big seller or if you just didn't put that many in the machine in the first place.

Creating and continually updating this menu which will seem like a lot of work at first. Yet over time you will get a sense of what sells and what doesn't and you'll be maximizing the selling potential of each machine. Once it's dialed in, you'll only have to make changes when your customers change, such as when new people start working at the company, or when the weather changes and peoples appetite's change accordingly.

What product should I put in the machines?

To be able to order product for a vending business, you have to see what sells in your machines.

When trying new items, think of them in terms of their groups. If people are drinking a lot of fruit soda, which makes more sense to try? Another type of fruit soda or another cola drink? If they are eating a lot of cookies, does it make sense to try more cookies or more chips? If they are eating a lot of a spicy chip, does it make sense to try another spicy chip or a plain chip?

Making distinctions and thinking of each item in terms of their overall taste group will make you that much more effective in predicting what will sell. In addition, if there are certain patterns of what sells in your machine that match other patterns of machines in the area, you can infer that other machines in the area might follow similar patterns. This is because consumption is often strongly correlated to demographics.

Once you get good at this people will think you're some kind of psychic who can predict exactly what they want. This sort of sensation creates a more compelling reason for people to visit your machine, because it seems to always have something they want.

When do I put new product in?

Here's the hard truth of customer service in vending. Once you do the work of dialing in to what people do want, what they want changes.

Rather than be blindsided by this phenomenon over and over, its helpful to assume it exists, embrace it, and prepare for it.

You do this by continually ordering new and different products and trying them out, responding to customer requests, and always changing your product selection in your machines. They should already have as much variety as is financially possible for the stage of your business. This creates a psychological state of abundance for your customers. They come to your machine and see that you have many things to offer. Even with over 40 selections however, if you keep putting the same items in the machine, repeat customers will start to see the machine as lacking in variety. This sound insane, but it's true.

For this reason it's important to continually switch out things that don't sell as well, so that every one who goes to your machine gets the sensation that machine is always changing. This will prompt them to return more frequently to see what is new and potentially buy more products. On the other hand, they won't return if they continually think to themselves, what's the point?

This sort of feeling about your vending machine can be toxic in a group where one person complains about the machine for any reason. Ideally, you want people to associate positive feelings with using your machine. These feelings are that they get what they want, there's always something new to feed their desire for change, and when they don't get what they want, help is expedient and friendly.

Doesn't that create a positive atmosphere? Contrast that with a machine that offers nothing new that sometimes takes their money and when the vendor eventually comes, they have a sour attitude towards the customer because they are losing money. Would you go back time and time again to use a machine like that?

The variety that exists in the machine at the outset is useful for attracting a person in the first place. Chances are if you have a good mix of chips, candy, cookies, healthy snacks, soda, water, health drinks, juices, etc someone will find something that they enjoy. However, the only way to keep that person coming back is to have the variety in the machine change over time. Otherwise this person will not necessarily consistently buy from your machine. You can only change the behavior of the machine at certain intervals, so it makes sense to do as much as possible at that interval to make the machine as compelling and easy to use as possible.

Dealing with problems

New or used machines alike, they will have problems. If these problems are recurring and you never fully fix them, then your customers will begin to develop negative associations with the machines. This isn't necessarily bad if you're efficient and friendly with your service as you should be, but even good service cannot rid a customer of the sour taste in their mouth from a machine that's been eating their money every time they use it.

If any problem occurs in the machine more than once in a short span of time, you can assume that problem will be recurring unless you deal with it. Don't assume that simply because the machine works now that it will continue to work once you leave the room. In many ways it's helpful to view the state of the machine as you find it as something that occurs over time. This way you will be able to extrapolate what happened since you serviced it and what will happen after you service it.

If you extrapolate that bills will continually jam, then you should do everything you can to clear and clean the bill validator, or order another one. A little more cost now is worth the price of your customer loyalty. In addition to this, it's helpful to try to head off problems like this in the future both on the machine side and on the customer side. On the machine side it's helpful to check all of the various parts that may go wrong between services and on the customer side its helpful to give them an easy way to reach you and a guaranteed amount of time before you respond. With a little bit of extra service you will be able to keep all but the worst problems contained and swiftly deal with them.

So yeah, there's a lot more to filling machines than just filling machines.

Chris is the editor and online marketing guy at Vending How. He can also drive more traffic to your website.


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