FreeZ: Sergei Kornienko, who once made PV headlines when he arrived in the UK representing Uvenco on the acquisition trail, is back in the UK heading a new business, FreeZ, which is involved in manufacturing and selling smart fridges.
‘It’s just a short step from vending to retail, but if vending operators are to grasp the opportunities it is incumbent upon them to expand from office spaces to public locations. The way to do that, in my opinion, is to deliver a better customer experience’, Sergei says from a busy street in Moscow, via Zoom.
‘FreeZ is just at the beginning of its journey’, Sergei says. ‘Our first tranche of smart fridges is being installed right now and our second batch will go live between the end of May and the middle of June.’
The company is based in Russia, where the restrictions due to Covid 19 ‘are over’. ‘Life here at the moment is completely different from that in the UK or the EU. We’re virtually back to normal and business is back on its feet.’
Sergei’s UK mission is to identify a ‘partner organisation to assist us with the distribution of FreeZ’, but he’s not averse to supplying operators directly. ‘There’s an element of trial and error whenever a new and disruptive technology comes to market’, he says. ‘Suppliers and purchasers alike have a learning curve to navigate, but the potential rewards make the process worthwhile. The big advantage for the new tech is that consumers are already happy to make purchases from fridges – just think M&Ms, Britvic or Coca-Cola – and the trajectory towards unattended retail has been re-defined, thanks largely to Amazon Go.
Sergei believes that, in the New Normal, traditional operators ‘will have to change or they will fail’. ‘I see a lot of young business people, new to the industry, who have become a significant force in the marketplace by introducing new ways of doing business’, he says.
All sales through FreeZ machines are digital and are conducted via an app. ‘It’s what young people are demanding. There has to be a move from coins and (in England) from credit cards, towards mobile payments.
‘We have a bank as our gateway partner for FreeZ’, Sergei says. ‘To use the app, a customer provides his details directly to the bank. We neither see, nor store that data, which is encrypted. In fact, the relationship is a private one, conducted exclusively between the bank and end-user.
‘The landscape is about to become much more competitive.’
Curiously, there’s a section on the FreeZ web site that concentrates on what the company’s fridges are not… ‘We do not use RFID tags, we are not a vending machine; we are not a self-service store, we are not a food kiosk in the office and not a micromarket; we do not accept cash and we do not use the technology of self-scanning the product barcode.’
The new technology is opening up new sales channels for operators involved in catering, HoReCa and vending. ‘Last time I was in the UK, I was buying a sandwich in Pret a Manger. There was a queue of people waiting in line to choose a product from a fridge and another queue at the checkout. To me, it was clear that the consumer experience could have been improved by the introduction of self-service operation. As soon as a customer chooses a product from one of our fridges and closes the door, the transaction is complete. So when the world comes back, anticipate changes in the retail experience and expect to see smart fridges replacing or augmenting the role of vending machines in universities, hospitals, schools and offices. This will bring new players to the market, whose background is not in vending. The landscape is about to become much more competitive.’
With (what we believe is) the first smart fridge operated by a vending company, (Connect Vending), going into service this week – and recent news of Selecta’s partnership with a Swedish manufacturer of smart fridges – the introduction of FreeZ to the UK benefits from consummate timing. Sergei is participating in Virtual Vendex – and we think he’ll be a busy man for the duration…
Back Story: The Russians Are Coming (October 2013) HERE