Hi-tech vending machine heading to offices
THEY'RE all the rage with companies like Amazon, Nestle, Unilever and DHL - and now the micro-market is coming to an office near you.
Cheaper than a cafeteria, healthier than a vending machine, a micro-market is essentially a miniature, automated convenience store that sits within a workplace, where employees can purchase anything from snacks, drinks, wraps, sandwiches and salads to sushi and Vietnamese rolls.
Morsl, the brainchild of former Credit Suisse banker Karla Borland, claims to be the first of its kind in Australia. After testing the technology in a "soft-launch" for the past few months at Artarmon-based IT company The Missing Link, Morsl is now "open for business".
Ms Borland said after 17 years in banking working in Singapore, Australia and Switzerland, she became "frustrated with the lack of healthy food options that were in the office in all of those locations".
"I personally wanted to eat healthier, so that growing frustration really brought the idea for this business - I did a lot of research to find a better solution to the vending machine, that led me to the micro-market concept," she said.
"It's certainly a new concept in Australia. Essentially it's a self-service automated food and drink marketplace that fits within a workplace. We've created a much healthier focus, promoting employee wellness and also maximising productivity."
Micro-markets are the fastest growing segment in the US food service industry, with 35,000 locations projected by 2022.
A large-size market would cater for 500-plus employees, but Morsl also has small and medium sizes suitable for companies with 200-300 or 300-500 employees respectively.
"The point is we go on site to an employer, look at the available space and customise," Ms Borland said.
"We have real-time remote monitoring of all the stock levels, so how often a market manager would go to the site depends on the volume. For a smaller market you (would expect) two to three times a week."
The first two weeks are used to determine the volume of fresh food sales to then "essentially tailor within each market the volume off of that site to minimise wastage", with any excess donated to OzHarvest.
"For an employer the pricing is incredibly affordable versus putting in a full-scale cafeteria fit-out (with the associated) cost and staffing," Ms Borland said.
"If those markets are working well going forward it's of no cost to the employer. For the staff it's a small premium versus what you pick up on the street but very affordable. Ready-to-go meals are $9.95."
Morsl uses a number of "frictionless" payment technologies including credit card, Apple Pay and fingerprint scanning.
"They go up, scan an item, press their fingerprint down then walk away," Ms Borland said. "We've got real-time remote monitoring, it can still operate if the network goes down."
She said theft from micro-markets was "proven to be low" at around 1.4 per cent in Britain and 2.5 per cent in the United States. In the retail industry, theft sits at around 3 per cent of revenue as a rule of thumb.
"The reason that is so low is these micro-markets are only put in secure workplaces which serve a known group," Ms Borland said.
"Secondly we do have surveillance cameras in place and also do regular inventory checks. Should there be any theft we do provide that video to employers."
Mr Borland declined to share revenue or internal targets, but said Morsl was "in discussions with a number of national" businesses and aimed to have at least 12 markets running by the end of 2019.
"We have a pretty aggressive growth strategy in terms of launching multiple markets next year - a market every month, then going forward one every week," she said.
Self-funded to the tune of $100,000, the company was speaking to "a few investors who have approached us" due to the "synergy" with their business, she added.
Ms Borland said the target market was "essentially any company that has more than 200 employees".
"We've had great interest at a HR level. The thing is, this is filling a gap in a lot of corporate wellness programs," she said. "(There is) nothing that has an integrated, sustainable way for employees to eat healthy in the workplace.
"We've had vending machines, we know they're generally very unhealthy with chips and chocolate, or you have cafeterias that close at 3pm, or companies in areas in the outer suburbs that have limited food options around them."
While it may sound good to cost-cutting employers and health-conscious HR departments, some staff might not like the idea.
Earlier this year, cardboard packaging giant Visy faced an internal revolt over the decision to shut down its subsidised canteens and replace them with vending machines at its Broadmeadows site.
Ms Borland insisted Morsl would be "put in to the benefit of employees".
"We do a survey of employees to understand what are their work habits, eating habits, demographics, dietary preferences, we tailor that market to them," she said.
"So if there are a lot of people coming in at 7am, we make sure there is an abundance of breakfast options."
Morsl suppliers currently include Thinkfood, Fine Fettle, The Bar Counter and Griffin Jerky for nuts, dried vegie and protein snacks, Jiva kombucha and Kreol prebiotic sparkling drinks, with ready-to-eat meals provided by Fare & Frolic and Sumo Salad.
"We're dealing with quite a few suppliers, I think this is where we'll be a little different," Ms Borland said.
"There's been a great growth of Australian suppliers who are focusing on all-natural, pure ingredients. We're focusing on these great snack options for office employees. They see us as a distribution platform straight into office workers."
The Missing Link chief executive Alex Gambotto said his company had been struggling to find something "convenient and effective" to improve employee health.
"Morsl is helping to improve our employee's wellness through better-for-you eating choices and maximising productivity with on-site convenience," he said.