Vendx’s mission was to help brands get the data they want and reward consumers with a prize or a sample. The merger with IBrands Global provides a platform to enable the business to scale.

 | by Elliot Maras — Editor, Kiosk Marketplace & Vending Times

The combination of IBrands Global — a supply chain platform and brand collective — and Vendx — an experiential vending machine operator — signals a new chapter in experiential marketing as the post pandemic era unfolds.

For Jessica Gonzalez, Vendx founder and chief innovation officer at IBrands Global’s newly created BluLabs division, the merger marks a new chapter in an experiential marketing journey that began more than a decade ago.

Hask, a marketer of hair and beauty products, surveyed consumers to create an individual hair profile.

The journey begins

Working in advertising after graduating from the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City, Gonzalez looked for ways to advertise to people while giving them something they need. She came up with the idea: “Charging stations that display advertising.”

“In the middle of the day my phone would die,” she said, reflecting on her student days. “That was before we had these fancy battery packs.”

She launched InCharge 11 years ago to create phone charging stations which she rented to trade shows and events such as music festivals. To finance this enterprise, she sold her personal belongings and moved back home with her dad.

“I got my Ph.D. in business through Google and actually losing a lot of money and making a lot of mistakes,” she told this website in a phone interview.

“In my old high school bedroom, I started ‘Frankensteining’ all these pieces together from Amazon and finding engineers online not knowing what a schematic was or PCB board or metalwork,” she said. “I built the first prototype in my dad’s basement.”

InCharge became a success, ultimately generating $1.3 million in annual revenue. But success did not make her complacent.

The journey continues

Cognizant of the fact that battery technology was improving, Gonzalez reasoned the market for battery charging kiosks may not last indefinitely.

“I wanted to be ahead of my own business ending at one point,” she said.

She kept her eyes peeled on exhibits at the trade shows she attended, and couldn’t help but notice that many exhibits were not doing a good job of engaging customers.

“The charging station brought people into the booth,” she said. “They had advertising on it. But what I noticed was things like photobooths and all these other products didn’t incentivize the user to engage.”

To address this need, she envisioned an experiential machine that would reward people with physical samples or prizes in exchange for giving data or playing a game.

An “Experience Columbus” machine provided free gifts in exchange for signing up for mailings.

Merging digital and physical

She leveraged her InCharge profits to launch Vendx, a company that provides customized vending machines for brands that reward users with product samples. She established a warehouse in Newark, New Jersey and worked with vending machine manufacturers and software designers to develop customized machines.

Vendx’s mission was to help the client brand get the data they want and reward consumers with a prize or a sample.

“What we did was we brought physical and digital together, and we said: ‘Put this vending machine at your trade show, and in exchange for someone filling out a survey, posting on social media…downloading an app… doing whatever action that the brand wanted, they get a sample or a prize in return,'” Gonzalez said.

“We put the idea out there on the Internet to our clients, and they started creating really cool campaigns around it,” she said.

Brands come on board

  • Hask, a marketer of hair and beauty products, surveyed consumers to create an individual hair profile, then provided a product based on consumer information. The data from these surveys was used to better target market to clients.
  • Ally Bank allowed visitors at a conference to trade in trinkets from other exhibitors for treasure by scanning their badges at a QR reader.
  • DKNY gave out new perfume samples at Macy’s at Herald Square in New York City.
  • Google offered a survey which delivered Google branded socks and Popsockets (phone grips) in exchange for completing the survey.
  • Pop-Tarts offered a game which rewarded players with samples of a new product.

“People were excited because they had to play a game and they got what they thought was a prize and it ended up being a sample, too,” Gonzalez said.

Pop-Tarts offered a game which rewarded players with samples of a new product.
  • Toney Chocoloney, a candy manufacturer that sells to vending operators and retailers, had consumers enter their email address in exchange for a chocolate bar.

“They were waiting for hours for two-dollar bar of chocolate just to go through the experience on a vending machine,” Gonzalez said.

  • Wish, an e-commerce marketplace, allowed customers to purchase holiday gifts with all proceeds benefiting charity.
  • The Clear Channel, one year into COVID in 2021, was the first touchless Vendx initiative at the Philadelphia airport. The customer had the option of using their phone to scan a QR code before approaching the machine and redeem a hand sanitizer.

Customers like having the option of using the phone or the touchscreen, she said.

“It eliminated the bottleneck of people waiting at the machine and having to go through an experience on the (machine) screen,” she said.

Vendx also built a battery powered portable vending machine for sampling in stores.

Ally Bank allowed visitors at a conference to trade in trinkets from other exhibitors by scanning their badges at a QR reader.

“It allows people to get samples throughout the store without the need to have a sampling person there, and then also redeem data,” Gonzalez said.

The team is currently working on a campaign to reward a retailer’s club members with a prize, similar to signing up for a credit card at a table in the store.

“There are so many use cases for these vending machines,” Gonzalez said. “We’ve just been very fluid with the direction that the brands have taken us.”

Vendx provides brand ambassadors if the client wishes.

The company, which has three inhouse employees and three remote employees, has an outside party write its software. Parent company IBrands has around 20 employees.

A new focus

Vendx initially saw itself as a hardware company, Gonzalez said, “but as the business model evolved, we realized that we want to focus on being just strictly software partnering up with different vending machine companies.”

The business has evolved from working on an “as project” basis to more permanent placements.

The current focus is on creating vending applications for retail.

Because vending is capital intensive, Gonzalez knew she needed partners to scale the business. The recent acquisition by IBrands Global resulted in a new company, Blue Labs, that will develop new products.

Last month, the combined entity launched a COVID test kit vending machine in a retail store in New Jersey, the first permanent machine for Gonzalez to date. Customers at the FindTape store in North Brunswick, New Jersey, scan the machine’s QR code and purchase a kit using Apple Pay or credit card.

The demand for the PPE products has diminished since the start of the pandemic, Gonzalez said, “but I don’t think that we’re at the end of COVID.” She is seeking additional locations for the unit.

Meanwhile, she is optimistic about the future of automated experiential retail.

“Vending as an industry is slowly starting to take off,” she said.

Photos courtesy of IBrands Global’s BluLabs division.