Bulk Vending Machines: Tips to Keep Vandals at Bay

Bill Hutchison has seen vending machines broken into with blowtorches.  He’s seen machines vandalized and robbed in police stations. He’s seen would-be thieves who have unwittingly gotten their arms stuck inside machines and had to call 9-1-1.
“It really doesn’t matter what type of machine it is,” said Hutchison, a longtime bulk vending operator and current supplier. “If there is money or product that they can steal, and there is an opportunity, they will try it.”
Hutchison, who owns The Vending Center in Birmingham, Ala., said in most cases, the monetary damage wrought by vending machine vandals far exceeds the amount of money or product they’re able to steal.
“Usually, I’ve found that they do five times the amount of damage than they take from the machine,” he said. “Sometimes, they even total the machine. If they don’t know what they’re doing, they can do a lot of damage.”
Vandalism of bulk vending machines is an ongoing problem, despite the increased presence of security cameras and enhanced features on machines. According to Fred Chiang, owner of Blue Bar Vending in Irwindale, Calif., it is a common problem that has a common motivation.
“Vandalism is a serious problem in our business,” he said. “In my experience, 99 percent of the time they’re trying to get the money or products out.”
Chiang, whose business consists of a wide variety of candy, gum and toy machines, said the toy machines tend to fall prey to vandalism most often. He said although he sometimes builds protective cages around machines or uses padlocks, these measures are worth little without the cooperation of the location’s owner.
“We do rely on the store owners to help us watch the machines and prevent vandalism,” he said. “If they ignore the machines, or leave them outside, we’re limited in what we can do to stop it.”
Occasionally, there may be the so-called “inside job” – vandalism of machines by employees at a location. Benjamin Wilson, owner of Your Choice Vending in Central Square, N.Y., faced a unique variation of this problem after acquiring used machines from other operators.
“I got into business by buying out other vendors, and I’ve had situations where the owner hasn’t turned over all the keys to me,” he said. “We have caught people on video breaking into the machines using keys.”
Wilson said replacing the locks on his 100 machines at $17 per machine would not have been cost-effective.
“That would have cost me more than $1,700,” he said.
For Joseph Goulazian, partner/owner of Snack King in Trenton, N.J., the location of the machine is a very important factor. Goulazian said the few experiences he has had with vandalism have occurred in secluded or unsupervised areas.
“You want to go for more upscale locations that are within view of an attendant,” he said. “We had one machine that was at an outdoor location, and we pulled it after the second time it was vandalized. If a machine becomes too much of a liability, we will just pull it out.”
Unfortunately, some vendors can’t afford to be particular about location, Chiang said.
“We’re on the West Coast, and there’s a lot of competition in this area,” he said. “We can’t be picky about location.”
According to David Rich, general manager of Acme Music and Vending in St. Joseph, Mo., precautions such as mesh screens or cages do at least make vandalism more difficult.
“A mesh screen makes it harder to get to the machine itself,” he said. “We also have haps with locks at some of our locations, such as rest areas that aren’t as supervised.”
According to Hutchison, such security measures might not stop the most determined vandal, but they may cause the casual thief to think twice.
“There are a lot of security measures now, and there are even ‘vandal resistant’ machines, but nothing is 100 percent vandal-proof,” he said. “However, these types of security measures can be very effective in stopping spontaneous, random vandalism.”
John Sayers, operations manager of KSA Vending in Conshohocken, Pa., agreed that locks and cages may be limited in their power, but they do have benefits. “A lock can only do so much, but in some cases, they stop people from getting ideas,” he said. “A lock keeps an honest person honest.”
Security cameras seem to serve a similar function, Sayers said, acting as more of a deterrent than as means of catching vandals after the fact. Particularly in areas that are less supervised, the knowledge of a camera nearby can have a watchful “Big Brother” effect.
“If a thief is about to break into a machine and they look up and see a camera, it will usually stop them,” he said. “So if there’s a security camera available, that can be a huge help.”
However, security footage of vandalism does not always lead to catching the culprit or recouping the losses, Chiang said.
“We’ve had video of people vandalizing machines, and usually, we file a police report and that’s the end of it,” he said. “The police never seem to catch them.”
So powerful is the deterrent effect of security cameras that some operators use them in theory only.
“We don’t actually have cameras, but we put up signs saying ‘this machine is being monitored by a security camera,’ ” David Rich of Acme Vending said. “We don’t know whether this has worked or not, but we thought it was worth a try.” –

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