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The value of ice vending

Attract new customers and increase income with these low-maintenance, high-profit machines.

March 26, 2013
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Standing apart, gaining attention, creating curiosity ­­— catching customer interest in today’s competitive car care market is a definite challenge. In cities where streets are lined with carwash after carwash, fresh ideas and distinctive services are needed to generate customer interest, and the best new services will cause prospects to slow down and actually take notice. Curiosity may have been unfortunate for the cat, but it can benefit a creative carwash.

One way operators set their businesses apart from the competition is through unique multi-profit offerings. For years, vending machines have monetized empty nooks and crannies in and around carwashes. Profits generally popped up from the usual suspects: Towels, cleaning products, snacks and sodas. Today, a new generation of automated ice vendors stands ready to create a cash flow and increase customer interest.

Much like traditional vending machines turned wasted space into functional profit centers, high-tech ice vendors can transform an empty parking area into a significant revenue stream. Even better, these eye-catching ice machines operate efficiently 24 hours a day with minimal upkeep. Due to their existing operational needs, carwashes are uniquely positioned to install and utilize these ice vendors.

How much ice?

Some versions of these modern ice vendors come with ice makers installed on the top of the unit, according to Michael Little, vice president of marketing with Ice House of America. The active makers ensure that the ice is always fresh, clean and available for customers. A machine with an ice bin that holds 6,000 pounds of ice can supply up to 300 customers at any given time and over 500 customers in the course of one day. Today, larger vendors that are equipped with two ice makers are capable of generating up to 20,000 pounds of ice in 24 hours.

“When choosing an ice vending machine, consideration should be given to the individual owner’s prospective market and location to best determine which unit will meet the production needs of his location,” Jeff Dyson, vice president of sales with Kooler Ice Inc., explained. “Naturally, the larger the unit, the larger the price tag, so it is important to match your needs with a machine … so that you are not paying too much money for a machine that is oversized.”

To keep the ownership and operational costs reasonable, manufacturers are now using larger bins to minimize the machine size and building costs.Different methods are used by separate manufacturers to keep the ice in the bin cold, and some are more cost efficient than others, Dyson noted. Today, some companies see a trend towards the elimination of the refrigeration unit to keep the operating costs low.

What is needed?

Little said the ice vending machines his company offers typically require 12 square feet to 200 square feet of parking lot or bay space for installation. The largest machine takes up approximately two parking spaces. Obviously, electricity and a water connection will be needed at the selected location.

The typical carwash’s demographics can make it a good fit for ice vendors. Most car care businesses have a high-visibility location chosen based on marketing demographics, according to Dyson. The water and power connections have already been established and in most instances are plentiful.

Another essential component besides location and connectivity is the convenience of customer access, Dyson stated. Ingress and traffic flow are usually readily achieved at carwashes since the operations have already taken entrances, exits and traffic patterns into consideration. In many instances, access to other conveniences such as vending and change machines has been considered.

Once installed, the maintenance on most ice vendors is usually comprised of simple tasks, such as replenishing the bags and emptying the cash. If an owner selects a larger machine or offers filtered, reverse osmosis water, more maintenance will be required, Dyson said.  However, for all machines, it is a good idea to plan for regular cleaning, service and inspection every six months. This maintenance schedule should keep a vendor operating reliably and efficiently.

The ice vending machines offered by Little’s company are fully automated and require minimal maintenance, so no staffing is required and inventory control is not necessary. Customers can pay with coins, dollar bills, credit/debit cards as well as tokens, coupons and prepaid ice cards. The fully automated vendors operate 24/7 and can be run remotely, which means they are always open for business and never have to close on holidays.

The latest technology

The owners of ice vendors want to know what is going on with their machine at all times. As a result, some manufacturers have developed sophisticated remote monitoring systems to track vital machine functions, Dyson said. These monitoring systems provide users access to a web portal where they track sales and other important functions, such as:

  • The number of bags in the machine;
  • How much ice is the unit;
  • Problems with the bill validator or coin exchanger; and
  • Other machine function issues.

Dyson revealed his company has taken monitoring a step further by providing a machine management system that offers remote diagnostics, remote software upgrades and an interactive portal. The portal allows owners to add information, track maintenance and generally interact with the machine in a significantly more sophisticated manner.

“Our system can be accessed from an owner’s laptop, iPad or smart phone,” Dyson said. “We have also developed an iPhone application that can be downloaded from the iTunes store quickly and easily to access your machine sales data and system status.”

Additionally, these remote management systems assist with security. Some systems send an alert to the owner every time a machine’s door is opened and closed, Little noted. Other modern safety equipment varies depending on the model selected. Physical security features can include heavy-duty security doors, hinges, locks and door lock bars. Some models include a Plexiglas cover for vending payment areas and high-security locking mechanisms and door guards.

New technology and innovation are still important in this relatively young market. Little stated that no ice vendor company can afford to “rest on its laurels.” The company Little works for employs a team of engineers and invests money and resources to ensure the development of more efficient and productive technology. In addition to durability, quality and convenience, the company wants to develop sustainable technology to reduce the environmental impact.

Marketing the machines

On-site marketing for newly-installed ice vendors has been helped by cutting-edge Lexan graphics and lighting kits, Dyson noted. The lighting improves both machine visibility and customer safety. In addition, most owners have used the expected signage and banners to promote the new, convenient ice vending service.

“This has proven to be successful to entice their existing customers as well as bring new potential customers to their location,” Dyson said.

Little’s company offers owners strategic local marketing guidance and collateral materials, including direct mail campaigns. Other promotional materials they provide include banners, pendant flags, promotional shirts, koozies and cups. The company is very active on Facebook as well, and its community of online fans offers owners the ability to promote a business in real-time.

Another marketing tool is the free vend coupon. Dyson stated that this option allows carwash owners to build their ice vending and carwash business using the coupons to develop a customer rewards program. One example would be a “Free bag of ice with a deluxe carwash” promotion. This offering would bring in new customers while encouraging existing customers to increase their spending. The true cost of this promotion is a fraction of the ice’s retail price, but whenever a business offers something free to the consumer, it is perceived as adding considerable value.

Dyson noted that some owners may choose to hold a grand opening for their ice vendors. During the celebration, an operator could offer a free bag of ice, T-shirts and other items to increase awareness of the new service and bring people to the location. “The owner is only limited by his imagination,” he said.

In today’s competitive market, attention-grabbing events and offerings are a necessity, and modern ice vendors offer an innovative way for customers to buy ice and water. Dyson concluded, “They are quick and appealing to the consumer and offer a unique convenience. The machines are sharp and clean looking and so are much more inviting aesthetically to the consumer and they will attract attention to the location.”