Sunday, April 27, 2008


A guy walks up to a vending machine. He eyes the snacks, makes his selection, inserts his cash and then presses the appropriate combination of buttons that ought to result in the turning of a spindle that will drop the item into a tray from which he retrieve it.

All is fine and good up until the part when his deposit of money is supposed to result in the delivery of his snack. This time, nothing happens. Instead of his eating the snack, the vending machine eats his money.

He's miffed. But, practicing what he believes to be good vending etiquette, he writes a note -- "This Machine Is Out of Order" -- and tapes it to the machine. Still hankering for a snack, he returns to his cubicle and gets back to work.

The story seems to be over ... but it's only beginning.

Later that day the office manager comes around to talk to Snack-Seeking Guy. With her is a stranger, who turns out to be the guy who stocks the vending machines -- an outside contractor who doesn't himself own the machines and is responsible only for stocking them, not for maintenance.

The machine stocker, noting that he makes his living from the vending machines, complains that once a "broken" sign appears on the machine, people stop putting money into it. That means, he argues, that posting such a sign is like taking money out of his pocket.

Sounds crazy, maybe, but the stocker has a rationale: If Snack-Seeking Guy had not posted the sign, people would have continued to lose money in the machine -- but only temporarily, since they could get a refund by calling the toll-free number posted on the machine.

The stocker would get the money he needs to live on, the customers would break even -- except for not getting the snacks they wanted, of course -- and the only loser would be the company that owns the machines, which would be out the cost of the refunds. But that's only fair, the stocker argues, because it was their machine that failed in the first place.

Snack-Seeking Guy doesn't buy it. The stocker's premise, he says, ignores the customers' frustration and irritation upon not receiving snacks from a busted machine. Even if a customer bothers to initiate a claim for a refund of less than a dollar, most vending-machine companies refund money only grudgingly and slowly. Why should an office full of customers be expected to make a series of small, interest-free loans for the stocker's sole benefit?

While Snack-Seeking Guy -- who, in the interest of full disclosure, is the syndicate editor of this column -- remains convinced that his argument is the sounder of the two, he writes me that he was impressed by the ethical sophistication of the stocker's position, which, he writes, "doubtless reflected years of bitter rumination."

Was he right to post the sign? Or does the stocker have a right not to be financially punished for a problem that's out of his control?

The stocker's beef should be with the vending-machine company, not with his customers. It's the vending-machine company's responsibility to ensure that the machine works, and it ought to make good any losses that the stocker sustains -- say, by paying him an amount equal to his average daily take from that machine for each day that it's out of operation.

It may be hard or even impossible to get the company to see it that way, but the fact that the company is taking advantage of the stocker doesn't entitle him to take advantage of the customers. He should protect his cash flow, and the company's, by making sure that the company cares for its machines properly,

Snack-Seeking Guy did the right thing by posting the sign. It would have been irresponsible to do otherwise, since it would then have been his fault that other people later were vexed by having fed money into a busted machine.

Turnabout is fair play, of course: If he ever gets an extra bag of pretzels from the vending machine in the future, he should do the right thing by alerting the company or stocker. Broken machines work both ways.

c.2008 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)


Maddy said...

Don't the guys who stock vending machines also empty the money from the cache? I'm not certain if people who restock the machines have a process to keep track of money in vs. product out. Can he verify if he's earned more than the machine has dispensed? Do the people who restock the machine also fix the machine if it has stopped dispensing properly?
Perhaps if this man is so upset over his loss of earnings, he could take some personal responsibility and post a phone number to report problems directly to him. He would have the opportunity to be out there quickly to minimize his earnings lost, and promptly take care of his customer by providing the lost snack. If I had a response from a vending machine service provider, I'd be much less upset regarding the issue of lost money and more likely to purchase snacks from the machine in the future.

Anonymous said...

Good answer about the vending machine not delivering snacks. I've seen people take it personally when those machines fail to work, kicking them, pounding them and yelling at them as though they were real persons. Ever notice pry marks on some machines? They were probably put there not by thieves trying to get to the change box, but by some frustrated customer trying to get his or her hoped for snack.

Burl Estes
Mission Viejo, CA

Anonymous said...

Mr. Seglin,

I have a few vending machines, and would like to comment on your article. Today’s vending machines are very efficient, and rarely break down, but it does happen. Almost always there is a company person who has contact with the vending machine operator. It could be the receptionist, the security guard, or the office manager. This person should be advised of the breakdown, so that the company may be notified, and the loss recorded. It’s to no one’s advantage to have a non-working machine.

I infer from your article that Snack-Seeking-Guy did just that, after posting the “Machine out of order” sign. How else to explain that the office manager knew who to come to later that day with the stocker? Was it an accident, or a prompt response? By the way, the stocker’s position makes no sense, except maybe to him. Also, although he may not do maintenance, the stocker is fully capable of fixing minor problems like a coin or product jam. Otherwise, he can advise the company of what’s needed.

I suspect that Snack-Seeking-Guy is making a tempest in a teapot. Since he claims to be a daily user of the machine, you should ask him how often he has had problems with it. But hey, he used it to give you a column, and that’s a good thing.

Yours truly,
Vito A. Lepore – AAA Vending in CA

Anonymous said...

I work for a company that hired an inferior vending service. The supplies are often expired, placed in the wrong area/s, products mixed together and often...sold out. This, among the times when the machine has not been emptied...if anyone has encountered this, they know your bills will not be accepted. We've complained, we've written no avail. Darn right we alert the other coworkers when the machines aren't working, eating money or giving wrong products. What's even worse is when the beverage machine gives the wrong pruduct. Sorry folks, but I don't buy the poor vending guy story...if the machine isn't working he would get the workers money...and the worker, nothing for his cash. Why should the vending machine person paid for a product that wasn't delivered ?

Sorry, as one who works long hours and occassionaly clamours for a snack or a beverage...I want the product I paid for. I don't kick the machine, I don't pry or rock it, but I DO leave the "not working" or "not taking bills" courtesy sign for the next coworker. Why should the machine be fed and not us? I am on your side, "Snack Seeking Guy".

ms, wisconsin

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