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1 PRODUCTS AND PROCESSES FOR VENDING A PLURALITY OF PRODUCTS VIA DEFINED GROUPS
The present application is a continuation of U.S. patent application Ser. No. 11/426,204, filed Jun. 23, 2006 now U.S. Pat. No. 7,499,769, entitled “PRODUCTS AND PROCESSES FOR VENDINGA PLURALITY OF PRODUCTS VIA DEFINED GROUPS”; which is a continuation of U.S. patent application Ser. No. 10/902,347, filed Jul. 29, 2004, entitled “PRODUCTS AND PROCESSES FOR VENDING A PLURALITY OF PRODUCTS VIA DEFINED GROUPS”; which claims the benefit of priority of the following provisional patent applications:
(a) U.S. Provisional Patent Application No. 60/491,215, filed Jul. 30, 2003, entitled “APPARATUS, SYSTEM AND METHOD FOR VENDING A COMBINATION OF PRODUCTS”;
(b) U.S. Provisional Patent Application No. 60/536,277, filed Jan. 13, 2004, entitled “APPARATUS, SYSTEM AND METHOD FOR VENDING A COMBINATION OF PRODUCTS”;
(c) U.S. Provisional Patent Application No. 60/560,960, filed Apr. 9, 2004, entitled “APPARATUS, SYSTEM AND METHOD FOR VENDING A COMBINATION OF PRODUCTS”.
CROSS-REFERENCE TO RELATED APPLICATIONS
The present application may be considered related to U.S. patent application Ser. No. 10/902,397, filed Jul. 29, 2004, entitled “PRODUCTS AND PROCESSES FOR VENDING A PLURALITY OF PRODUCTS”.
Traditional vending machines respond to changes in supply, demand, and customer behavior ineffectively, especially when compared to the abilities of, e.g., human salespeople.
Applicants have previously recognized that significant benefits ensue from vending machines configured to dynamically respond to market forces by, for example, identifying a combination of products and offering the combination of products for a promotional price. For example, a parent application, U.S. patent application Ser. No. 10/095,372, enables the creation of promotional product combinations based on supply and/ or demand data.
The advantages of Applicants’ previous inventions are significant. Nevertheless, given the complexity of the relevant market forces, it would be advantageous for vending machine systems and methods that dynamically respond to market forces by offering a combination of products.
BRIEF DESCRIPTION OF THE DRAWINGS
FIG. 1 depicts an embodiment of control software comprising abstract components.
FIG. 2 illustrates an embodiment of a proactive inventory grouping embodiment.
FIG. 3 illustrates an embodiment of a reactive inventory grouping embodiment.
Numerous embodiments are described in this patent application, and are presented for illustrative purposes only. The
described embodiments are not intended to be limiting in any sense. The invention is widely applicable to numerous embodiments, as is readily apparent from the disclosure herein. Those skilled in the art will recognize that the present invention may be practiced with various modifications and alterations. Although particular features of the present invention may be described with reference to one or more particular embodiments or figures, it should be understood that such features are not limited to usage in the one or more particular embodiments or figures with reference to which they are described.
The terms “an embodiment”, “ ments”, “the embodiment”, “the embodiments”, “one or more embodiments”, “some embodiments”, and “one embodiment” mean “one or more (but not all) embodiments of the present invention(s)” unless expressly specified otherwise.
The terms “including”, “comprising” and variations thereof mean “including but not limited to”, unless expressly specified otherwise.
The enumerated listing of items does not imply that any or all of the items are mutually exclusive, unless expressly specified otherwise.
The terms “a”, “an” and “the” mean “one or more”, unless expressly specified otherwise.
Devices that are in communication with each other need not be in continuous communication with each other, unless expressly specified otherwise. In addition, devices that are in communication with each other may communicate directly or indirectly through one or more intermediaries.
A description of an embodiment with several components in communication with each other does not imply that all such components are required. On the contrary a variety of optional components are described to illustrate the wide variety of possible embodiments of the present invention.
Further, although process steps, method steps, algorithms or the like may be described in a sequential order, such processes, methods and algorithms may be configured to work in alternate orders. In other words, any sequence or order of steps that may be described does not necessarily indicate a requirement that the steps be performed in that order. The steps of processes described herein may be performed in any order practical. Further, some steps may be performed simultaneously.
It will be readily apparent that the various methods and algorithms described herein may be implemented by, e.g., appropriately programmed general purpose computers and computing devices. Typically a processor (e.g., a microprocessor) will receive instructions from a memory or like device, and execute those instructions, thereby performing a process defined by those instructions. Further, programs that implement such methods and algorithms may be stored and transmitted using a variety of known media.
When a single device or article is described herein, it will be readily apparent that more than one device/ article (whether or not they cooperate) may be used in place of a single device/article. Similarly, where more than one device or article is described herein (whether or not they cooperate), it will be readily apparent that a single device/article may be used in place of the more than one device or article.
The functionality and/or the features of a device may be alternatively embodied by one or more other devices which are not explicitly described as having such functionality/features. Thus, other embodiments of the present invention need not include the device itself.
The term “computer-readable medium” as used herein refers to any medium that participates in providing data (e.g.,
instructions) which may be read by a computer, a processor or a like device. Such a medium may take many forms, including but not limited to, non-volatile media, volatile media, and transmission media. Non-volatile media include, for example, optical or magnetic disks and other persistent memory, Volatile media include dynamic random access memory (DRAM), which typically constitutes the main memory. Transmission media include coaxial cables, copper wire and fiber optics, including the wires that comprise a system bus coupled to the processor. Transmission media may include or convey acoustic waves, light waves and electromagnetic emissions, such as those generated during radio frequency (RF) and infrared (IR) data communications. Common forms of computer-readable media include, for example, a floppy disk, a flexible disk, hard disk, magnetic tape, any other magnetic medium, a CD-ROM, DVD, any other optical medium, punch cards, paper tape, any other physical medium with patterns of holes, a RAM, a PROM, an EPROM, a FLASH-EEPROM, any other memory chip or cartridge, a carrier wave as described hereinafter, or any other medium from which a computer can read.
Various forms of computer readable media may be involved in carrying sequences of instructions to a processor. For example, sequences of instruction (i) may be delivered from RAM to a processor, (ii) may be carried over a wireless transmission medium, and/or (iii) may be formatted according to numerous formats, standards or protocols, such as Bluetooth, TDMA, CDMA, and 3G.
Where databases are described, it will be understood by one of ordinary skill in the art that (i) alternative database structures to those described may be readily employed, (ii) other memory structures besides databases may be readily employed.
DEFINITIONS AND EXEMPLARY USAGE OF CERTAIN TERMS
Actual Product Velocity, Actual Sales Rate<The actual rate at which a given product is sold by a vending machine during a sales period. The actual rate may be expressed in various forms, including units sold per time, sales revenue per time, and gross profit per time.
Component Producia product, of which a unit may be sold (e.g., pursuant to an offer) along with at least one other unit of the same or another product.
Fill Period, Sales Period<The period of time between restock dates.
Full Price, Retail Priceiln some embodiments, the price that is normally charged for the purchase of one unit of a given product when purchased alone, (i.e. not as a component product).
Ideal Product Velocity, Target Product Velocity, Ideal Sales Rate, Target Sales Rate, Target Velocity<The desired rate at which a given product should be sold by a vending machine during a period of time, such as a sales period. The desired rate can help achieve various goals, including a desired profit, sales, inventory level and/or amount of transactions. Moreover, such goals can be represented as, e.g., a value to be achieved by a certain time, or as a value averaged over a period of time. Thus, in some embodiments, an ideal velocity may be set or calculated for each inventoried product indicating the rate at which products must be sold in order to deplete the vending machine’s inventory to a certain level by the end of a given sales period (i.e. by the restock time/date or an expiration time/date). For example, an ideal product velocity may be calculated by a vending machine control system after an operator inputs a restock date and a desired remaining
inventory for the restock date (e.g. an operator may wish to have only one unit of each product remaining at the restock date so that the machine sells as many units as possible without completely selling out and thereby disappointing customers). Thus, if an operator (a) stocks 50 units of Soda A, (b) inputs a restock date fourteen days away, and (c) indicates that only one unit of SodaA should remain at the restock date, the control system may divide 49 by 14 to conclude that, on average, 3.5 units of Soda A must be sold per day within the sales period in order to realize the ideal product velocity. As discussed herein, a vending machine control system may periodically, substantially continuously, or otherwise evaluate the difference between a product or products’ actual product velocity and ideal product velocity for the purpose of making package offer decisions (e.g. in proactive inventory grouping embodiments, determining which products to assign to a certain inventory group). The actual rate at which a given product should be sold may be expressed in various forms, including units of the product sold per time, sales revenue from sales of units of the product per time, and profit from sales of units of the product per time.
Income Contribution Factor, Profit Contribution Factor<A measure of the revenue or profit realized due to the sale of a particular product. In some embodiments, a product’s income contribution factor may be defined by the total amount of revenue or the total amount of profit generated by the product during a certain time period (e.g. during a fill period, between certain dates, every twenty four hours). In other embodiments, a product’s income contribution factor may be represented as a percentage, such as that which may be calculated by dividing the amount of profit generated by the product in a certain period of time by the total amount of profit generated by some or all products sold through the vending machine in the time period. For example, if a vending machine realized $100 in total profit during a fill period, and a certain product was responsible for generating $12 of the profit, that product’s income contribution factor could be represented as the percentage ‘12%’. In some embodiments, an income contribution factor may be used for the purpose of determining how to allocate a product to one or more inventory groups. Inventory Group, Package Group<A set of products. An inventory group may include a single product, or more than one product. In many embodiments, a customer may select a component product from an inventory group. In certain proactive inventory grouping embodiments, pursuant to a package offer, customers may select at least two component products, a component product selected from each of at least two inventory groups, for a single price. In reactive inventory grouping embodiments, pursuant to a package offer, customers may select a second component product from an inventory group that is revealed after a first component product is selected from a first inventory group. In one or more embodiments, inventory groups may be communicated to customers through colored LEDs located proximately to inventoried products (e.g. products in a “red” group may be communicated via proximately located red LEDs; products in a “green” group may be communicated via proximately located green LEDs). In proactive and reactive inventory grouping embodiments, inventory groups may be “reactively? Automatically?” determined by a vending machine control system during a sales period. In other embodiments, inventory groups are not determined reactively? Automatically? (as in proactive or reactive inventory grouping embodiments), but are rather determined prior to a sales period by an operator or other person, and are stored (e.g., as rules in a database) accessible to a vending machine control system.
OperatoriThe owner (or employee or agent thereof) of a vending machine.
Package Offer, Package Deal, Combination Deal, Combination Offer, Combination Product Offer, “Load-up” Deal, Value Combo Deal, Combo DealiAn offer enabling a customer to purchase at least two products. In many embodiments the at least two products are sold for a single price. In many embodiments, the two products are dispensed to the customer essentially simultaneously (e.g., within seconds of each other). Typically, package offers are configured so the price of the at least two products is less than the sum of the prices of the two products, and thus the customer saves money compared to the sum of the individual component products’ retail prices.
Package Instance, Potential PackageiA combination of specific component products according to a package offer. Thus, a package offer defines one or more (but typically many) package instances. In some embodiments, package instances are constructed and compared to other package instances for the purpose of determining which products may be made available for selection by a customer pursuant to a package offer. In some proactive inventory grouping embodiments, package instances are constructed and compared in order to determine how to apportion inventory between two inventory groups. In some reactive inventory grouping embodiments, package instances are constructed and compared in order to determine the composition of an inventory group from which a customer may select a second component product after a first component product has been selected.
Package PriceiThe price that is charged (typically in a single transaction) for the units of products purchased pursuant to a package offer. Typically, package prices reflect a net-savings to the customer when compared to the sum of the respective retail prices of the individual component products. Product Cost, Item Cost, CostiThe cost to the operator of a unit of selling a given product. The product cost may reflect the fixed cost and/ or the variable cost in selling a unit of the product. In some embodiments, stored rules may instruct a vending machine control system to not sell a product or products unless the cost of the product(s) is equal to or less than a certain price (e.g., a retail price, a package price). In other embodiments, stored rules may instruct a vending machine control system to sell a product or products even though the cost of the product or products is greater than a retail price or package price, as may be the case where the product or products’ actual sales rates are above a certain threshold (e.g. where actual sales rates exceed target sales rates).
Product, ItemiA good or service provided by (e.g., sold by, dispensed by, handled by) a vending machine. Examples of goods provided by vending machines include beverages (e.g. cans of soda) and snacks (e.g. candy bars).
Restock Date, Restock TimeiThe time and/or date that a vending machine is scheduled to be restocked by an operator (or agent thereof) of a vending machine.
Various embodiments, including products and processes, are disclosed for facilitating the sales of combinations of units of products. The disclosed embodiments are particularly suitable for use in one or more vending machines or like apparatus.
According to an embodiment, a vending machine or other apparatus is configured to increase sales and/or profitability through novel processing of sales data, cost data and/ or other data available to the vending machine.
In particular, various embodiments allow groups of products to be defined according to various criteria. Customers are
prompted to purchase products from the groups. Thus, appropriate definition of the groups can lead to benefits such as increased profits per time.
According to a “proactive inventory grouping” embodiment of to the present invention, on a periodic, substantially continuous or event-triggered basis, sales and/or cost data is monitored and evaluated against stored rules for the purpose of determining how to apportion inventory among at least two inventory groups from which, pursuant to a package offer, a customer may select and purchase at least two products for a single price. In determining how to apportion inventory to the different inventory groups, a vending machine may consider a value rating of one or more products. For example, products having a relatively high value rating may be allocated to a first inventory group, while products having a relatively low value rating may be allocated to a second inventory group. Thereafter, package offers encouraging the purchase of at least two products (e.g., at least one product from each of at least two inventory groups) may be output to prospective customers through one or more output devices. For example, a scrolling light emitting diode (LED) display may read “Pick any item from the red group and any item from the green group for $1.00!”, and shelf-mounted LED displays located adjacent to the various qualifying products may contemporaneously flash in red and/or green to indicate the products’ inventory grouping statuses (i.e. green or red). The vending machine may be further configured to process package offer transactions in accordance with such advertised package offers by (i) receiving, through an input device, an indication of customer acceptance and (ii) dispensing a combination of products consistent with the advertised package offer.
According to a “reactive inventory grouping” embodiment, a customer is offered the ability to purchase a combination of products for a single price by the customer selecting a first product from a first group of inventoried products, and then the customer picking a second product from a second inventory group that is revealed to the customer after the first product is selected. In determining which inventoried products Will be included in the second inventory group, a vending machine may consider a value rating of one or more products.
Further, according to some embodiments, a value rating of one or more products may be determined by considering one or more of (i) the time remaining until a restock date, (ii) the time remaining until an expiration date of a product or products, (iii) an actual sales rate of a product or products, (iv) a target or ideal sales rate of a product or products, (v) the cost of a product or products, (vi) the retail price of an individual unit of a product or products, (vii) the profit margin of a product or products at a given sale price such as the retail price, (viii) the historical acceptance rate of package instance comprising a given combination of products, and/or (ix) one or more products’ income or profit contribution factor(s) (e.g., measures of one or more products’ historic success in the marketplace).
I. Vending Machine Apparatus and System Architecture
Generally, a vending machine according to various embodiments can include a device configured to manage sales transactions with customers by, among other things, receiving payment from customers, controlling the pricing and/or distribution of goods and/or controlling entitlements to services.
7 B. Machine Casing/ Cabinetry
In some embodiments, suitable machine cabinetry may be constructed from any suitable material, including but not limited to any combination of (1) commercial grade sixteengauge steel (e.g. for exterior panels and internal shelving), (2) transparent materials such as glass or Plexiglas (e.g. for product display windows), (3) rubber (e.g. for waterproofing insulation), (4) plastic, and/or (5) aluminum.
Many commercially available machine casings can be adapted to work in accordance with various embodiments. For example, in snack machine embodiments, a suitable machine casing may comprise the 129 SnackShop manufactured by Automatic Products International, Ltd. of Saint Paul, Minn., which stands at 72"/1829 mm wide, has a width of 387/8"/988 mm, and a depth of 35"/889 mm. Other suitable snack machine casings include the A La Carte® machine fromAutomatic Products, and the GPL SnackVendor model # 159 from Crane Merchandising Systems/ Crane Co. of Stamford, Conn.
In beverage machine embodiments, machine casings commercially available from Dixie Narco, Inc. of Williston, S.C. may be employed. Beverage machine casings may comprise a “cooler” or “glass front” style front panel, featuring a transparent front panel (e.g. glass) enabling customers to see inventory for sale. Alternatively, beverage machine casings may comprise a “bubble front” style front panel, featuring a decorative front panel, typically used to advertise a logo of a product manufacturer commercially interested in the vending machine’s operation.
Other embodiments are contemplated as well, including combination snack and beverage vending machine embodiments, such as those available from Crain Co. Further details concerning the suitability of machine casing/ cabinetry are well known in the art, and need not be described in further detail herein.
C. Inventory Storage and Dispensing Mechanisms
Inventory storage and distribution functions of a vending machine configured in accordance with a snack machine embodiment of the present invention may include one or more conventional components, including: (i) a drive motor, (ii) metal shelves, (iii) a product delivery system (e.g. a chute, product tray, product tray door, etc.), (iv) dual spiral (i.e. double helix) product dispensing rods, (v) convertible (i.e. extendable) shelves, and/or (vi) a refrigeration unit. In embodiments using the casing of the model 129 SnackShop manufactured by Automatic Products, 3 removable shelves may be employed, together providing for 30 product rows and an inventory capacity of between 185 to 522 commonly vended snack products.
Inventory storage and distribution functions of a vending machine configured in accordance with a beverage machine embodiment of the present invention may include one or more conventional components, including: (i) metal and/or plastic shelving, (ii) product dispensing actuators/motors, (iii) product delivery chutes, and/or (iv) a refrigeration unit.
In many types of beverage and snack vending machines, operators will typically stock several units of the same product linearly arranged in a column, allowing individual units to be dispensed upon command. The same product may be stocked in more than one column. Similarly, more than one product may be stocked in a single column. Examples of services sold by vending machines include car washes, photography services and access to digital content (e.g. permitting the downloading of MP3 files to a handheld device).
Further details concerning vending machine inventory storage and dispensing mechanisms are well known in the art, and need not be described in further detail herein.
D. Payment Processing Mechanisms
The vending machine may also include one or more mechanisms for receiving payment and dispensing change, including a coin acceptor, a bill validator, a card reader (e.g. a magnetic stripe reader) and a change dispenser.
In a manner known in the art, a magnetic stripe card reader may read data on the magnetic stripe of a credit or debit card, and it may cooperate with conventional point-of-sale credit card processing equipment to validate card-based purchases through a conventional transaction authorization network. Suitable card-based transaction processing systems and methods are available from USA Technologies, Inc.
The coin acceptor, bill validator and change dispenser may communicate with a currency storage apparatus (a “hopper”) and may comprise conventional devices such as models AE-2400, MC5000, TRC200 by Mars, Inc. of West Chester, Pa., or CoinCo model 9300-L. The coin acceptor and bill validator may receive and validate currency that is stored by the currency storage apparatus. The change dispenser activates the return of coinage from the currency storage apparatus to the customer where appropriate (e.g. where a customer deposits more currency than is required for a given transaction). Such apparatus may feature Multidrop Bus (MDB) and/or Micromech peripheral capabilities, as is known in the art.
In another embodiment, a vending machine according to various embodiments may be configured to receive payment authorization and product selection commands through a wireless device communication network, directly or indirectly, from a customer’s wireless device (e.g. a cellular telephone). In such an embodiment, a payment processing mechanism may comprise a cellular transceiver operatively connected to a processor, as described herein. Systems and methods allowing for the selection of and payment for vending machine articles through cellular telephones are provided by USA Technologies, Inc., of Wayne, Pa. Further, in such an embodiment, a cellular telephone may serve as an input/ output device, as described herein.
Further details concerning vending machine payment processing mechanisms are well known in the art, and need not be described in further detail herein.
According to various embodiments, a vending machine may include an input device for receiving input from (i) a customer indicating a product and/or offer selection, and/or (ii) an operator (or agent thereof) during stocking or maintenance of the vending machine. Also, a vending machine may include one or more output devices for outputting product or offer information to a customer or operator.
Many combinations of input and output devices may be employed according to various embodiments. In some embodiments, a vending machine may include more than one input device. For example, vending machine may include an exterior input device for receiving customer input and an interior input device for receiving operator input. In some embodiments, however, the input device provides the dual functionality of receiving input data from both operators and customers. Likewise, a vending machine may comprise more than one output device (e.g. an LCD screen and several LEDs, as described herein). However, in some embodiments, such as