“Thinking Inside the Box” by Jordan K. Speer, Apparel Magazine

When Jeff Thibodeau and Patrick McDonald wanted to expand Nick’s Novel-tee’s, a t-shirt shop based in Dayton, OH, they did what most any retailers would do: they went scouting for real estate locations they deemed as attractive for hawking more of their popular novelty t-shirts.

They soon concluded what they really already knew from experience: opening new retail stores is an extremely expensive proposition, especially when you’re selling t-shirts.

That was in early 2008. In the two years since then, McDonald and Thibodeau have taken their t-shirts to locations as far away as Arizona and Texas – without opening a single additional store.

At least, not a traditional store.

Hmmm… I think I’ll have a Twix bar and a t-shirt

Instead of expanding to another pricey, brick-and-mortar location, the partners founded another business: Innovative Vending Solutions LLC (IVS), and set about manufacturing specialty vending systems to meet the specific needs of dispensing t-shirts and other apparel. (The vending machines are dedicated to apparel, and do not actually hold candy bars or other snacks.)

Thibodeau and McDonald branded the t-shirt division as Mobil-Tee-Vending, and with their first couple of new custom-made vending machines, the partners expanded their t-shirt business to other locations in Ohio, one in a mall, the others into local movie cinemas.

Soon, other companies were taking notice, and the partners found that their new business was about so much more than apparel. It was about t-shirts, yes, but also about marketing and branding. And then it was also about customized vending machines, for their own apparel, and suddenly, for others’ – perhaps even the competition’s.

Expanding the brand

But even beyond that, the vending machines that IVS was marketing were as much about branding apparel as they were about dispensing it. In addition to features such as thermal receipt printers for returns, credit/debit card readers and touch screen vending, the machines include optional LCD screens for advertising. The machines can be designed to meet specific apparel and product needs, and the exterior, even without a screen, can be branded to fit any image or message.

Take Snorg-Tees, which saw the machines as a great opportunity to expand sales of its novelty t-shirts. The companies are working together to offer a branded Snorg Tees machine for sale as a business opportunity to entrepreneurs. The company plans to sell its t-shirts, printed with graphics such as “I Only Like New York as a Friend” and “Dyslexics Are Teople Poo” in vending machines throughout the United States.

The machines also serve as a replacement for labor. Consider the New Orleans Police Department, whose official t-shirts have a popular following in that city. The Department found itself overwhelmed with customers for its t-shirts, but often there was no one available to sell them. Enter the vending machines, and problem solved. Not only has the machine eliminated the need for a continuous human presence, it’s essentially turned the t-shirt business into a 24/7 money-making enterprise for the NOPD.

Likewise, the vending machines have proved a boon for selling licensed merchandise in movie theatres, where they dispense as needed without diverting theatre personnel from selling tickets and popcorn. These are known as the “Studio Stores” and, as Thibodeau notes, the presence of the machines right there in the theatre entry (or in a restaurant, theme park, etc.) encourages impulse buys by presenting itself to the consumer at the very moment when he or she is likely to be most enthusiastic about the movie, actor or other entity featured on the shirt. For some, impulse isn’t even involved. Consider the droves of Twilight fans seeking everything from apparel to notebooks plastered with images of the movie’s actors, who have developed a cult-like following. For these customers, the ability to purchase merchandise immediately after exiting a late-night movie showing is a true convenience.

Most recently, IVS has co-branded with BPong.com to place a beer pong apparel vending machine in O’Shea’s Casino in Las Vegas, and is also placing a t-shirt vending machine in the Heart Attack Grill, a major tourist attraction in Phoenix, AZ that sells burgers with as many as four patties to customers willing to take the risk. This type of co-branding entails limited risk and financial involvement, says Thibodeau, but is an easy way to launch or test a new product.

Here’s another twist to the business. If you want to sell apparel in vending machines, IVS won’t just customize your machines for you. It’ll also help find locations for machines, source your t-shirts and even design the graphics, if you wish.

What’s the carbon footprint of a vending machine?

That’s something the company hasn’t measured exactly, but Thibodeau is sure of this: it uses a lot less energy to run a vending machine than a store.

Sustainability issues are top-of-mind for most apparel executives; add to that an overabundance of U.S. retail space, and the opportunity to sell more without building or leasing stores and without eating too much additional energy is quite appealing.

Thibodeau acknowledges it’s not a solution for every company, but he does see growing interest in this new apparel sales and marketing vehicle and expects that in a few years time, selling apparel via vending machine will no longer even seem a novelty, it will just be one more channel for doing business in a multi-channel retail world.