Joe Hessling had a vision that someday, the majority of retail premises would be ‘unattended’: ‘Sales Assistants’ or ‘Clerks’ would focus on providing top-quality service to their customers, rather than simply collecting funds at the till. Indeed, it was his commitment to realising this vision that led him to set up 365 Retail Markets and now, his company is the world’s largest provider of MicroMarkets.
365’s business has been built in ‘closed’ environments, such as office blocks or educational institutions, but Joe Hessling believes that’s about to change… ‘We’re seeing more people who operate in what you might call our ‘core’ marketplace looking closely at what we do as potentially a way forward for their operations’, Joe said. ‘On top of that, though, we’re starting to attract interest from people who are working in different areas who are wondering, ‘is that the way we should go?’
‘We’re seeing more multi-purpose vending, and automatic retailing. It’s about removing the people from the commerce scenario. I don’t know if I’m a ‘pro’ or a ‘con’ about that. I’m definitely a ‘pro’ when I go to my anniversary dinner with my wife. I like to have the red carpet and the white glove treatment; but when it comes to just getting something from a shop, do I really need to interact? If there were a safer way or a better way, why wouldn’t I do that?’
Fear of infection is one of the drivers responsible for this, but COVID has not had quite the impact of his business that Joe feared. ‘We have a finger print reader on most of our MicroMarkets and when the COVID thing took a hold, I went to my Director of Engineering and I said ‘hey; we’ve got to re-think this strategy; no one on Earth is going to use a fingerprint reader’. But then, when the data started coming through I took a look at the numbers, and use of the readers had gone down by only 2%. That’s comparing April 2020 numbers with February 2020 numbers. In February, people in the US didn’t even know what COVID was. By April, it’s The News everywhere and it’s our worst month. Yes, we were dealing with fewer transactions but of those that were completed, the choice of the fingerprint reader as a way of paying was only down 2%.
‘What that showed me was that ‘yes, fewer people will be using cash; yes, fewer using fingerprints: but the majority of those that used that method in the past, will continue to do so in the future.’ In our business, and our operators’ businesses, the whole point is that our units are not in a shopping mall, they’re not on a railway station, they are in closed situations where a limited number of people have access to the facility. In that case you have to offer a wide variety of options, but already people are falling back on their old behaviours.’
365 Retail Markets has about a dozen products in the Contract Service industry, all unattended. Further expansion won’t be achieved by adding to such a portfolio: virtually every conceivable retail opportunity is already covered. Expansion is on the agenda, however, on two fronts: geographical and technological. The company is already expanding into Europe and elsewhere and thanks to advances in product recognition, the possibility of establishing new partnerships is on the horizon. ‘When it comes to identifying a product, the bar-code has been king for as long as most of us can remember but right now, we’re seeing a move towards Computer Vision, for instance Amazon Go is adopting that technology’, Joe said. ‘We’re also investing in that direction. Once prices are down and accuracy is up, it will enable the retail sector to do things it can’t do today. Take partnerships, for instance. An F&B provider will be able to match up with a consumer products provider in the same space. When that happens, the argument that, for business to be conducted a cashier is ‘needed’, is no longer realistic.’
Aside from building his own business, Joe Hessling serves as Vice Chair of the US trade association NAMA and he’s scheduled to take the reins of that organisation for the period 2021/22. ‘NAMA is very important, both as a knowledge resource for operators and as a lobbying medium to present the interests of our sector on Capitol Hill. In fact, our offices have recently relocated to Washington DC for exactly that reason.’
One thing’s for sure: one of the busiest people in our sector, Joe Hessling is about to get even busier…