Q&A: Andrew Theodore, CEO, Social Vend
RTIH: Tell us about Social Vend
AT: Social Vend makes the world's smartest vending machines. For the last three years, we've changed the way that consumers interact with brands. Our machines are designed for the retail, advertising, product sampling and market research sectors. We work by instantly rewarding for data, social engagement, interaction and brand love.
RTIH: What was the inspiration behind setting the company up?
AT: Having worked in the experiential events industry for years, we first witnessed the introduction of 'smart vending machines'. It was apparent that these machines weren't 'smart' at all. In fact they were disappointing, just old snack machines hacked to perform a basic function badly. They were terrible to use and prohibitively overpriced.
This disappointment and the opportunity to innovate got us thinking about how we could realise the potential of smart vending and what it could mean for the experiential market if executed properly and made affordable.
So we got to work, beginning with the premise ‘if Apple made a smart vending machine, what would it be like?’ Although we may have initially underestimated the task of creating a bespoke, multifunctional machine, after countless prototypes and four versions left at the scrapyard, we have now arrived to disrupt multiple industries.
RTIH: What has been the industry reaction thus far?
AT: We've had a great reaction so far, particularly within the retail industry. Our machines are perfect for amplifying a brand's presence on social media, launching new products or stores, or offering a more creative way to do market research.
We worked with Links of London in Westfield during Christmas last year and saw direct ROI through in-store conversions. Participants could exchange vouchers won at the vending machine in store, leading to an 159% sales increase for the week.
Last Christmas, we also worked with Mulberry in five cities in the US and UK to amplify the brand's presence on social media and build up their customer database. Our machines were programmed with a fun spin-to-win game, dispensing luxury products in exchange for posting to social media and generated a massive buzz - reaching more than 4.6 million people with the dedicated hashtag #MulberryLights.
RTIH: What has been your biggest challenge/setback?
AT: Our biggest challenge was in the beginning when we were creating the first prototypes. Creating the highest quality for the lowest price has always been our biggest priority. That meant that we weren't prepared to sacrifice with poorer quality and insisted that our machines were manufactured in Europe.
Building these relationships and perfecting the prototypes took time. We've since developed relationships with a manufacturing partner in Spain and a metalworks in the UK to customise the front of our machines and all software is developed in-house.
"We began with the premise ‘if Apple made a smart vending machine, what would it be like?’ Although we may have initially underestimated the task of creating a bespoke, multifunctional machine, after countless prototypes and four versions left at the scrapyard, we have now arrived to disrupt multiple industries"
RTIH: What are the biggest challenges facing the omnichannel retail sector right now?
AT: We all know that retail is changing fast. The future looks very different to the past. A bricks and mortar store isn't enough. You need to create a unique and memorable experience for your customer, that's true across all demographics.
You need to stay ahead of the trends and conduct relevant and useful market research, however, many consumers are reluctant to give away their data. For younger generations, they want to be able to create their own content and amplify their own channels.
RTIH: What's the best question about your company or the market asked of you recently by a.) an investor and b.) a customer?
AT: An investor recently asked us why we were selling our machines when rentals clearly had a higher profit margin. We've never been about taking advantage of our customers. If someone needs a machine for a long time, it makes a lot more sense for them to buy their own. Price transparency has always been one of our core values - you can see our prices from day one. And for us, focusing on both sales and rentals also allows us to diversify our revenue stream and target other markets, like the US.
A customer recently asked if there was any way that our machines could verify an ID. This got us thinking and we're now launching a new brand called Carded, a vending machine featuring state-of-the-art biometric age verification. This will be perfect for the cannabis, alcohol and other industries, like energy drinks. We'll be launching within the next month so watch this space.
RTIH: What can we expect to see from Social Vend over the next 12 months?
AT: We have big plans for the next 12 months to get to the next stage of growth. This means developing new brands for specific sectors and expanding geographically.
In terms of brands, along with Carded we're launching:
Vendly - A dedicated retail platform to sell products with interactive digital advertising.
vendOS - a cloud-based management platform and operating system for the entire vending industry.
In terms of geographies, we'll be establishing a US HQ later in the year in New York. So lots of exciting things ahead.