DETERMINING THE AVAILABILITY OF PURCHASABLE ITEMS IN A NETWORK ENVIRONMENT
Embodiments of the present invention provide for a method, system and article of manufacture for operating vending machines. In general, a plurality of vending machines are nodes of a network. Each node is configured to send, receive and process signals carrying inventory, pricing, reservation and/or refund information. In particular, a first signal is sent to one or more nodes requesting inventory/price information from other nodes. Those nodes carrying the product may reply with a second signal. In this manner, the location of vending machines carrying one or more items specified by a customer may be determined. In another embodiment, vending machine items may be reserved from a remote location. In still another embodiment, vending machines may be configured to provide refunds under controlled conditions. A consumer may request a refund in cases where the consumer was improperly charged for goods are services that were not provided.
CROSS-REFERENCE TO RELATED APPLICATIONS
This is a divisional of co-pending U.S. patent application Ser. No. 11/003,876 filed Dec. 3, 2004, which is a divisional of co-pending U.S. patent application Ser. No. 09/848,573 filed May 3, 2001, which are both herein incorporated by reference.
BACKGROUND OF THE INVENTION
1. Field of the Invention
Embodiments of the present invention relate generally to vending machines. More particularly, embodiments relate to a method and apparatus for communicating inventory information between vending machines within a network.
2. Description of the Related Art
Vending machines are well known. Conventionally, vending machines have facilitated storage and dispensation of items such as cigarettes, postcards, drinks, candy, frozen deserts, snacks, video tapes, toys and the like. Such items are periodically loaded into a vending machine and then dispensed in response to a purchase order received from a user interfacing with a selection panel of the machine.
Traditionally, vending machines are located in factories, office buildings, bowling alleys and other high traffic locations. Vending machine operators have found that strategic location of vending machines in high traffic areas regularly frequented by the same customers, promote habitual sales and brand loyalty. As a result, vending machines have proved successful automated devices for sales of goods to customers.
Despite the success of vending machines, problems remain which jeopardize the effectiveness of such machines. One such problem is maintaining adequate inventory in the vending machines. Failure to keep machines stocked often results in loss of customer loyalty, thereby detrimentally affecting sales. In effort to maintain desired levels of inventory, vending machine management software has been implemented. One such software product is “Windows for Vending PRO with Inventory” produced by VendMaster. This product enables a vending machine operator to report and analyze various historical sales data. VendMaster's product is intended to enhance a vending machine operator's ability to identify high-demand inventory, determine times to stock the machine, and calculate suggested prices.
However, despite advances in vending machine management software, low inventory problems persist. As a result, customers are often unable to locate a particular item at any given vending machine. The customer is then forced to check other vending machines for the item, or must resort to a different venue altogether, e.g., a grocery store.
Another problem with conventional vending machines is that customers are often improperly charged. For example, in some cases items in a vending machine have been incorrectly loaded. Thus, a customer requesting Coca-Cola may instead receive Dr Pepper. In other cases, the item may become lodged in the dispensing slot so as to be irretrievable by the customer. In still other cases, the customer may receive a food item which has passed its expiration date. In each of these cases, the customer has already made a payment to the vending machine and is left with no immediate means for refund. If a refund is desired, the customer is forced to pursue tedious steps of contacting the vending machine owner and follow the refund policy implemented by the owner. In the end, the efforts expended by the customer far outweigh the value of receiving a refund.
Accordingly, what is needed is a method, system and article of manufacture for mitigating or eliminating the problems of the prior art in the area of vending machine technology.
SUMMARY OF THE INVENTION
Embodiments of the present invention generally provide methods, systems and articles of manufacture that facilitate solutions in the area of vending machine technology. In one embodiment, a method of locating an item in a network of vending machines is provided. The method comprises receiving, at a vending machine of the network of vending machines, a purchase order for the item and transmitting, via a network connection, a request for the item at another vending machine in the network of vending machines. A response indicative of whether the item is available at least one other vending machine is then received at the vending machine.
In another embodiment, a vending machine for dispensing items comprises a command input interface for receiving user commands, a network interface configured to support a network connection with a network of vending machines, a memory and a processor connected to the command input interface, the network interface and the memory. In operation, the processor is configured to process purchase orders for items and issue a request via the network interface to determine whether an item requested by a user is available at another vending machine in the network of vending machines.
Yet another embodiment provides a signal bearing medium containing a program which, when executed by a processor, performs a method of locating an item in a network of vending machines. The method comprises receiving, at a vending machine of the network of vending machines, a purchase order for the item and transmitting, via a network connection, a request for the item at another vending machine in the network of vending machines. A response indicative of whether the item is available at least one other vending machine is then received at the vending machine.
Still another embodiment provides vending machines configured to provide refunds. Refunds are selectively provided under controlled conditions. A consumer may request a refund in cases where the consumer was improperly charged for goods or services that were not provided. A determination of whether to issue a refund may be made according to a refund history for a particular consumer. For example, if the consumer has requested more than a threshold number of refunds within a specified time period then subsequent refund requests may be denied.
BRIEF DESCRIPTION OF THE DRAWINGS
So that the manner in which the above recited features and embodiments are attained and can be understood in detail, a more particular description of embodiments of the invention, briefly summarized above, may be had by reference to the embodiments described below and which are illustrated in the appended drawings.
It is to be noted, however, that the appended drawings illustrate only typical embodiments of this invention and are therefore not to be considered limiting of its scope, for the invention may admit to other equally effective embodiments.
DETAILED DESCRIPTION OF THE PREFERRED EMBODIMENTS
Embodiments of the present invention provide for a method and system for operating vending machines. In one embodiment, a vending machine comprises a network interface configured to transmit a location request for a selected item to a network of vending machines, and to receive a response indicative of whether the selected item is available at another vending machine in the network of vending machines. In another embodiment, a plurality of vending machines are nodes of a network. Each node is configured to send, receive and process signals carrying inventory, pricing, reservation and/or refund information. In particular, a first signal is sent to one or more nodes requesting inventory/price information from other nodes. Those nodes carrying the product may reply with a second signal. In this manner, the location of vending machines carrying one or more items specified by a customer may be determined.
In another embodiment, vending machine items may be reserved from a remote location. In such embodiments, a vending machine is configured to receive a reservation request for a specified item. The request may be issued from one of a plurality of client devices (e.g., wireless telephones, desktop computers and the like) or from a reservation control system.
In still another embodiment, vending machines may be configured to provide refunds. Refunds are selectively provided under controlled conditions. A consumer may request a refund in cases where the consumer was improperly charged for goods or services that were not provided.
One embodiment of the invention is implemented as a program product for use with a computer system such as, for example, the vending network environment 100 shown in
In general, the routines executed to implement the embodiments of the invention, whether implemented as part of an operating system or a specific application, component, program, module, object or sequence of instructions may be referred to herein as a “program.” The computer program typically is comprised of a multitude of instructions that will be translated by the native computer into a machine-readable format and hence executable instructions. Also, programs are comprised of variables and data structures that either reside locally to the program or are found in memory or on storage devices. In addition, various programs described hereinafter may be identified based upon the application for which they are implemented in a specific embodiment of the invention. However, it should be appreciated that any particular program nomenclature that follows is used merely for convenience, and thus the invention should not be limited to use solely in any specific application identified and/or implied by such nomenclature.
Item Locating and Pricing
The network 103, as well as the connection between the vending machines 104 and the network 103, may include wire, radio, fiber optic cable, or any other device or method adapted to support a network connection. As such, the network 103 facilitates communication between the vending machines 104. In one embodiment, each vending machine 104 is a node connected to the network 103 and is assigned a unique address. The unique addresses allow each of the vending machines 104 to identify one another and exchange information.
In operation, the vending machines 104 are configured to transmit item requests and responses between one another. In general, an item request may be transmitted in response to a purchase order made by a customer at one vending machine 104 that cannot satisfy the order. The failure to satisfy the purchase order may be due to, for example, a maintenance issue or the requested item being out of stock. Accordingly, the vending machine 104 at which the purchase order was made (the “requesting machine”) transmits a request to fill the purchase order to the other vending machines 104 via the network 103. One or more vending machines capable of satisfying the order (the “responding machines”) may respond. The requesting machine may then notify the customer of the replies received from the responding machines. In particular, the customer is provided with location information pertaining to the responding machines having the requested item in stock.
In the case of the network environment 100 shown in
In general, the vending machine 300 includes a central processing unit (CPU) 302, a memory 304 and a storage 306, each connected by a bus 308. The vending machine 300 may also include an interface 316 for external input/output devices. The CPU 302 is configured with an inventory monitor program 310, which may be loaded from memory 304 for execution. The memory 304 contains data structures which may be utilized by the inventory monitor program 310 during execution. Illustratively, the memory 304 contains a reply list 312 and an inventory file 314.
One embodiment of the inventory file 314 is shown in
One embodiment of the reply list 312 is shown in
The ID entry 504 is configured to contain information uniquely identifying a particular vending machine 300 in a network of vending machines. The machine designated by the information contained in a particular ID entry 504 may be referred to as a “responding machine,” because the ID information is typically received in response to a request from a requesting machine. The price entry 506 contains a price for an item carried by the responding machine identified by the information contained in ID entry 504 in the same record 502. The location entry 508 specifies the location of the responding machine for the same record 502. The direction entry 510 contains directions to the location (per the information in the location entry 508) of responding machine for the same record 502. Illustratively, the directions may be in the form of a map and/or written directions. In some embodiments, a customer may dictate the level of detail provided by the directions, e.g., by requesting alternate routes and specifying an origination point (in one embodiment, the default origination point is the vending machine with which the customer is currently interacting). In another embodiment, a customer is given the option of downloading the directions onto, for example, a personal digital assistant (PDA). In this case, the vending machine with which the customer is interacting may provide the necessary hardware interface (e.g., interface 316) and supporting software to support the download.
During operation, the inventory monitor program 310 processes customer purchase orders for vending machine items. The item availability and price is indicated by the inventory file 314. If an item is available at a machine being interacted with a customer, the purchase order is processed in a normal manner and the item is dispensed accordingly. If the item is not available, steps are taken to locate the item at another machine. In addition, the price of the item may be adjusted.
Method 600 is entered at step 602 which may represent a vending machine 104/300 being powered up and brought on-line with a network connection to a plurality of other vending machines. Method 600 then proceeds to step 604 to receive an event.
At step 606 the method 600 queries whether the event is an incoming request from another vending machine. If so, the request is processed at step 608. The method 600 then returns to step 604 to wait for another event. If step 606 is answered negatively, the method 600 proceeds to step 610.
At step 610, the method 600 queries whether the event is an item purchase order from a customer interacting with the local vending machine. If not, the event is handled at step 612 and the method 600 then returns to step 604. In this case, the processing at step 612 may include, for example, issuing a service/maintenance request, updating item pricing information and the like. If step 610 is answered affirmatively, the method 600 proceeds to step 614 to determine the item availability at the local machine. To this end, the local machine references the availability entry 410 for the appropriate item (indicated by the item entry 404) in the inventory file 314. If the item is available at the local machine, the purchase order is processed at step 612 in a conventional manner. Method 600 then returns to step 604.
If the requested item is not available at the local machine, steps are taken to determine item availability at remote networked vending machines. As such, a request for the item is transmitted to one or more remote vending machines at step 616. In one embodiment, the request is broadcast to all remote vending machines connected to a common local area network (LAN). Alternatively, the request is provided to selected vending machines connected to a LAN. For example, the customer may be given the option to select one or more remote vending machines according to his or her preference. In some cases, the customer may provide a proximity parameter to restrict recipients of the request. For example, the customer may specify that only those remote vending machines within a 50 meter radius receive the request.
At step 618, the method 600 initiates a timer. The timer defines some period of time during which replies received from remote machines are accepted by the local machine. At step 620, the method 600 prepares to receive replies. Each reply received before the expiration of the timer is added to the reply list 312, as indicated by step 622. Once the timer expires, the method 600 proceeds to step 624 and queries whether the reply list 312 contains any entries (i.e., replies from remote machines). If so, the entries are processed at step 626. The manner in which entries are processed may be determined, in part, by customer specified options. For example, if the customer specified a proximity parameter, only the requests received from remote machines satisfying that parameter are considered. Alternatively, the entries may be processed according to default parameters. For example, the local machine may be configured to select the closest remote machine having the item.
Once the reply list entries are processed at step 626, or if no replies where received at step 624, the results are provided to the customer at step 628. If the item was located at one or more remote machines, the customer may be provided with the item price and the location/direction of/to the remote machine(s). The reply list 312 is then cleared at step 630 and the method 600 returns to step 604 to receive additional events for processing.
In one embodiment, the item request may be broadcast to certain sectors of a vending machine network. The determination of which sectors to broadcast to may be dynamically determined according to whether the item has been located. This approach may be illustrated with reference to
The foregoing embodiment is merely illustrative and persons skilled in the art will readily recognize other embodiments. In particular, it is understood that an item request may simply be broadcast to all vending machines on a network. Alternatively, and as previously discussed, the customer may specify a proximity parameter that dictates the scope of the broadcast.
At step 807, the method 800 queries whether the item is in stock at the machine that is processing method 800. If not, the method 800 exits at step 806. In this case, the responding machine may also indicate to the requesting machine (i.e., the local machine) the item is not available at the responding machine. If the item is available at step 807, then the method 800 proceeds to step 808.
At step 808, the method 800 queries whether the price for the requested item is set at its maximum price. The maximum price for any given item is contained in the maximum price entry 408 of the inventory files 314. In the present embodiment, the price of an item is specified either by the price contained in the default price entry 406 or the price contained in the maximum price entry 408. Illustratively, the price to be charged for a particular item is specified by flagging the appropriate entry 406 or 408. Accordingly, the determination at step 808 is made by identifying which entry 406,408 is flagged. Although the inventory file 314 shown in
If query 808 is answered negatively, the price of the item may be raised (e.g., to the maximum price or any other price provided by the inventory file 314) at step 810. The determination to raise a price may include, for example, an inventory assessment of all other vending machines on a common network. If the inventory assessment indicates a relatively low inventory for a particular item, then the price may be raised. In addition, each vending machine connected to a network may maintain the same price for any given item. Accordingly, if the price is raised at any single vending machine, the adjusted price is broadcast to each of the other machines on the network. In this manner, the prices of items carried by vending machines of a particular network reflect the real-time realities of supply and demand.
Once the price for an item has been raised at step 810, or if the item price is already at its maximum price at step 808, the method 800 replies to the requesting machine at step 812. Illustratively, the reply indicates that the responding machine carries the item and may also indicate the price of the item. In addition, the reply preferably includes a unique ID for the responding machine as well as location/directions for the responding machine. The method 800 then exits at step 806.
Reservation System and Method for Vending Machine Items
In some embodiments, a customer is given the option of reserving an item carried by a vending machine. For example, in the foregoing embodiments in which an item was located at one or more remote machines, a customer may input a reservation command to the local machine in order to hold the item at the remote machine(s) for a period of time. Embodiments for reserving an item are described in more detail below.
The network 916 connects the input device 902N to a central control system 920. The central control system 920 may represent any type of computer, computer systems or other programmable electronic device, including a client computer (e.g., similar to input devices 902N), a server computer, a portable computer, a handheld computer, an embedded controller, a network of computers, etc. In one embodiment, the control system 920 is an embodiment of the control system 202 described above with reference to
The central control system 920 illustratively includes at least one processor 922 coupled to memory 924 and read only memory (ROM) 926 via a bus 925. Processor 922 may represent one or more processors (e.g., microprocessors), and memory 924 may represent the random access memory (RAM) devices, comprising the main storage of the central control system 920, as well as any supplemental levels of memory, e.g., cache memories nonvolatile or backup memories (e.g., programmable or flash memories), read only memories, etc. In addition, memory 924 may be considered to include memory storage physically located elsewhere in central control system 920, e.g., any cache memory in processor 922, as well as any storage capacity used as a virtual memory, e.g., as stored on a mass storage device 932 or on another computer coupled to the central control system 920 via network 916.
Central control system 920 also illustratively receives a number of inputs and outputs for communicating information externally. For interface with a user or operator, central control system 920 includes one or more user input devices 930 (e.g., a keyboard, a mouse, a trackball, a joystick, a touch pad, and/or a microphone, among others).
For additional storage, central control system 920 may also include one or more mass storage devices 932, e.g., a floppy or other removable disk drive, a hard disk, a direct access storage device (DASD), an optical drive (e.g., CD drive, a DVD drive, etc.) and/or a tape drive among others. Furthermore, central control system 920 may include and interface with one or more networks 940 (e.g., a LAN, a WAN, a wireless network, and/or the Internet, amongst others) to permit the communication of the information with other computers coupled to the network. It should be appreciated that the central control system 920 may include suitable analog and/or digital interfaces between processor 922 and each of the other components of the central control system 920 and is well known in the art.
Central control system 920 operates under the control of an operating system (“O/S”) 957, and executes or otherwise relies upon various computer software applications, components, programs, objects, modules, data structures, etc. Illustratively, a plurality of data structures 942 include a location table 946, a product table 948, a reserved item table 950, a missed sales table 952, a free money table 954, and non-refundable table 955. One or more of the data structures 942 may be periodically updated with information from one or more of the client computers 902N. In particular, the product table 948 may be updated with information from the vending machine 9021 (e.g., with item availability/quantity information). Illustrative programs 944 include a batch reserve item processing program 958, a reserve program 960, and a purchase program 962. Moreover, various applications, components, programs, objects, modules, etc. may also execute on one or more processors in another computer coupled to the central control system 920 via a network 916, in a distributed or client-server computing environment, whereby the processing required to implement the functions of a computer program may be allocated to multiple computers over the network.
Those skilled in the art will recognize that the exemplary environments illustrated in
In one embodiment, reserving an item and prepaying for the item may result in a discount for the consumer, since this guarantees a sale to the distributor regardless of whether the item is picked up or not. Other incentive plans and features may also be provided.
In operation, the data structures 942 are used to facilitate reservation/purchase of items contained in the vending machines 9021. In particular, the data structures are used by the programs 958, 960 and 962. The data structures and the programs are described in more detail below.
In one embodiment, any of the client devices 902N may be configured with a graphical user interface (GUI) adapted to facilitate reserving vending machine items. In general, the GUI enables a user to select a pickup location and one or more items via a menu interface.
Illustratively, the GUI 1600 includes a plurality of dropdown boxes each including one or more user selectable options. A location dropdown box 1620 contains all possible vending machine locations that are available. A user may then select one or more locations at which to reserve an item for purchase. It is contemplated that a more complex menu system may be provided; e.g., a map showing all locations could be provided and clicking the mouse over a location on the map would be equivalent as entering the location. A selection is provided for each location ID entry 1002 of the location table 946. The location could also be defaulted to the nearest machine and/or the list contained with the dropdown box could be ordered by location.
An item dropdown box 1640 will be populated once a location is selected from dropdown box 1620. Until a location is selected from dropdown box 1620 the dropdown box 1640 is disabled. Once enabled, dropdown box 1640 provides a list of all available products available from the location(s) specified by the dropdown box 1620. In other embodiments, the item dropdown box 1640 may be implemented as a screen with product images. A user then selects an item(s) for reservation by clicking on an image of the appropriate item. In one embodiment, the user may also be provided with product information such as return dates (in the case of video rentals), warranty information, rebate information and the like. In still another embodiment, the user selects an item from the item dropdown box 1620 and then selects a location from the location dropdown box 1620 wherein only the locations having the item available are shown.
Once an item has been selected, a quantity window 1650 is made available. The window 1650 allows the consumer to enter the number of items to be reserved. In one embodiment, the window may indicate a number of the selected items currently available.
A pre-pay check box 1660 will allow the user to prepay for the item(s). It is contemplated that by checking check box 1660 a discount may be provided to the consumer. In one embodiment, if check box 1660 is not checked, then the consumer is charged a processing fee if they do not pick up or purchase the reserved item within a specified time. The specified time may be entered using a date box 1665 and a time box 1667 are used to enter the data and time, respectively, of the intended pickup of the product(s) being reserved. In one embodiment, the date and time may be provided by the machine executing the GUI 1600, rather than allowing the consumer to specify the date/time.
If the consumer indicates a desire to pre-pay, then a payment form window 1662 is made active. The window 1662 provides a list of possible payment forms including, for example, a selection of credit cards. In addition, entries may be provided within window 1662 in which to enter credit card information.
After entering the reservation order information, the user then clicks an Enter button 1680 to accept the order or a Cancel button 1685 to cancel the order. In the event the Enter button is pressed, processing of the data is then performed and a result is returned in the message area 1690. It is also contemplated that instead of a textual message form, the machine providing the GUI 1600 could print out the transaction in the form of a receipt or provide an auditory output.
Initialization work is done by the program 960 at step 1705. When the user executing program 960 clicks the enter button 1680 the program 960 proceeds to step 1710 where the reservation order information input to the GUI 1600 is received.
At step 1720, method 1700 determines if the item (and quantity) being requested is available. Thus, a reference to entry 1106 of the product table 948 is made using the specified items and location IDs. If the item is available, method 1700 proceeds to step 1725 to query whether the consumer has elected to pre-purchase the item. If so, the item is added to the reserved item table 950 at step 1730. At step 1731, a message is output to the message area 1690 to inform the consumer that the item has been reserved. In addition, the message may include a confirmation number (stored to the confirmation number entry 1220) which the consumer may use to pick up the item at a future time. The method 1700 then exits at step 1732.
If, at step 1725, the item was not pre-purchased then method 1700 proceeds to 1735 to get a non-refundable fee amount from the non-refundable cost table 955. The non-refundable fee is retrieved from the non-refundable cost table 955 and will be charged to the customer if the consumer does not pick up the intended item within a specified time period (as indicated by date and time checkboxes 1665 and 1667, respectively). At step 1730, the purchase order information (e.g., location ID, item ID, item quantity, date/time information, pre-pay information and payment form) is included in a record and entered as a row in the reserved item table 950. If the consumer has prepaid then the flag in entry 1214 of the record is set to “Y.” At step 1731, a message is output to the message area 1690 to inform the consumer that the item has been reserved. The method 1700 then terminates at step 1732.
Referring back to 1720, if the item is not available then the user is asked if they would like to process additional locations for the item. This may be done by outputting a message to the message area 1690. If the user desires not to process more locations, e.g., by clicking the cancel button 1685, method 1700 proceeds to step 1745. At step 1745 a “thank you” message may be output to the message area 1690 and the method 1700 is exited at step 1732.
If the user desires to process more locations the ENTER button 1680 is pressed and method 1700 continues to step 1750 where the location table is copied. At step 1755, the location table 946 is sorted by proximity of location relative to a current location (i.e., the location of the customer). Method 1700 then proceeds to loop through all locations at step 1760, processing the data in order such that the first available item found will break the loop. Specifically, method 1700 loops by retrieving a location record at step 1645 and determining whether the item is available at the specified location at step 1770 (by checking the product table 948). If the item is not available, method 1700 returns to step 1760. In this manner, the loop continues until all location records are exhausted.
If the item is not located, then the loop eventually ends by exiting to step 1785 where a message is output to the consumer indicating that the item is not available. If at any time during the loop the product is found, then the method 1700 proceeds to step 1725 to query whether the consumer has elected to pre-pay (by activating checkbox 1660). Step 1725 and subsequent steps have been described above.
If, at step 1815, the event is a purchase event, then method 1800 proceeds to step 1825 to query whether the purchase event is a reserve purchase (i.e., a request to purchase an item previously reserved via method 1700). If not, method 1800 proceeds to step 1830 where it is determined if a sufficient quantity of the item is available for purchase. Thus, step 1830 includes a reference to the entry 1106 of the product table 948 for the machine being interfaced with (as determined by the location ID). If the item is not available, then at step 1835 a message is sent to the message area at 1690 stating that all remaining items (if any) are reserved and the product is not available to be purchased. If step 1830 is answered affirmatively, then method 1800 proceeds to step 1820 and a sale of the item is completed. Upon such a sale the method 1800 returns to step 1805 to wait on another event.
Referring back to step 1825, if the purchase is a reserve purchase, method 1800 proceeds to step 1840 where it is determined whether the item was pre-paid. If so, then processing continues at step 1845 where the appropriate entry is removed from the reserved item table 950. The item is then dispensed at step 1850. If the item was not pre-paid, processing continues from step 1840 to step 1855 where the consumer's purchase order is handled (e.g., money is accepted) and then to step 1845 where the appropriate entry is removed from the reserved item table 950. Method 1800 then returns to step 1805 to wait on another event.
Method 1900 is entered at step 1902 and then enters a loop at step 1905. The loop is performed for each record in the reserved item table 950. A record is read at step 1910 and at step 1915 it is determined if the time and date in the record (entry 1212) have passed. If not, then method 1900 returns to step 1905 to loop through the remaining records of the reserved item table 950. If, at step 1915, the time and date have passed then processing continues at step 1920 where the appropriate record is removed from the reserved item table 950. Method 1900 then proceeds to step 1925.
At step 1925, the method 1900 queries whether the item was pre-paid. If so, an entry is added to the free money table 954 indicating that the item was not picked up at step 1930 and the method 1900 returns to step 1905 to process the next record. If the item was not a pre-paid, then processing continues at step 1935 where it is determined whether there will be non-refundable charge with reference to the flag at entry 1214 of the current reserved item table record. If a non-refundable charge exists then, at step 1940, an entry is added to the free money table 954 reflecting the fact that a non-refundable charge was applied (e.g., against the consumer's credit card) in the amount specified by entry 1218 of the current reserved item table record. Method 1900 then returns to step 1905 to begin processing the next record. If, at step 1935, there is no non-refundable charge, method 1900 returns to step 1905. Once all records have been processed, then method 1900 proceeds to step 1950 where the program 958 waits by some pre-determined amount of time before processing the reserved item tables 950 again.
Refund Systems and Methods
In each of the foregoing embodiments the customer is typically expected to pay for the purchased item(s). For example, the customer may insert bills into the cash acceptor interface 114 (shown in
The CPU 302 of the vending machine 2000 is shown configured with a refund program 2002, which may be loaded from memory 304 for execution. The memory 304 contains data structures which may be utilized by the refund program 2002 during execution. Illustratively, the memory 304 contains a refund file 2004.
The customer ID entry 2102 may contain any value or values that identify a customer. For example, a Social Security number may be used. Alternatively, a customer name and address may be used. The payment form entry 2104 indicates the means by which a customer paid for a particular item. Payment forms include, for example, credit cards, debit cards, checks, cash etc. In the case of credit cards and debit cards the payment form entry 2104 may also include card information such as a card number and expiration date. The item (or service) which a customer purchased or attempted to purchase, and for which a refund is being requested, is indicated by item entry 2106. The quantity of items purchased is contained in the quantity entry 2108. The date of the purchase transaction is contained in the date entry 2110. The total cost of the transaction is contained in the total cost entry 2112. The refund flag entry 2114 indicates whether the customer was refunded for the transaction represented by the record.
Method 2200 is entered at step 2202 and then proceeds to step 2204 to wait on an event. When an event is received, the method 2200 proceeds to step 2206 and queries whether the event is a refund request. A refund request may be initiated by a refund requester (e.g., consumer) selecting a refund option provided on an output device (e.g., the display 108 shown in
In yet another embodiment, only select customers are allowed refunds. For example, those customers who repeatedly purchase an item and have purchased a threshold number of items (i.e., loyal repeat customers) may receive refunds upon request. The historical purchase data of customers is maintained with reference to the customer ID described above. Thus, a record for each purchase by a given customer may exist. When a refund is requested, the database of records for the requesting customer is accessed to determine the customer's purchase history. Statistical algorithms may then be performed to determine the customer's eligibility for a refund. The refund approval may depend on such factors as the frequency with which the customer makes purchases for the item on which the refund is being requested, the total volume (in dollars) of sales to the customer at vending machines, the ratio of the refund to the sales, etc. In some cases, the customer's credit history may be checked to determine financial responsibility, in much the same way credit history analysis is performed by lending institutions and credit card issuers.
If the event is not a refund request, the event is handled at step 2208 and the method 2200 then returns to step 2204 to wait on another event. If the event is a refund request, the method 2200 proceeds from step 2206 to step 2210 and queries whether a refund is available. In one embodiment, the determination at step 2210 includes a reference to the refund file 2004 to determine whether the customer qualifies for a refund. For example, a determination may be made as to whether the customer requesting the refund has requested refunds in the past. If the customer has previously requested refunds, steps may be taken to restrict the number of refunds and/or the amount of money refunded in a given time period. In some embodiments, a customer who repeatedly requested refunds is prevented from making additional purchases at the vending machine 2000, or any other networked vending machine. Of course, this latter embodiment assumes payment forms (e.g., credit cards) which allow the vending machine 2000 to identify the customer before completing the purchase order. In another embodiment, a network of vending machines may collectively have an upper limit on refunds. When the limit is reached, no vending machine on the network will issue any more refunds. Alternatively or additionally, each vending machine 2000 may be configured with its own upper limit.
If a refund is not available at step 2210, the method 2200 proceeds to step 2212 where a message is issued to the customer indicating that a refund is not available. A reason for the refund unavailability may also be provided to the customer.
If a refund is available at step 2210, the method 2200 proceeds to step 2214 where the refund is applied. The manner in which the refund is applied may depend upon the payment forms selected by the customer. For example, in the case of a credit card purchase, the refund may be applied to the customer's credit card. In the case of a check purchase, the check is returned to the customer. The method 2200 then returns to step 2204 to wait on another event.
In another embodiment, instead of issuing a refund, the vending machine with which the customer is interfacing may attempt to locate the item for which the refund is requested at another vending machine. This attempt may be made automatically by the vending machine with which the customer is interfacing in response to the refund request or may be made at the option of the customer. Embodiments for locating a vending machine item have been described above. If the item can be located at another machine, the user is provided with the option to retrieve the item at the other machine. If more than one machine carries the item, the user may elect which machine to retrieve the item from. Retrieval of the item may be facilitated by issuing the customer a retrieval identification number which may be input to any networked vending machine carrying the item.
In some embodiments, the information made available by the refund file 2004 is used for maintenance purposes and failure analysis. For example, a vending machine at which numerous refunds are requested may be indicative of a defective machine. Accordingly, the machine may be evaluated and, if necessary, repaired before returning the machine to operation.
It should be noted that while the refund program 2002 and the inventory program 310 (and their associated data structures) are shown separately (in
While the foregoing is directed to embodiments of the present invention, other and further embodiments of the invention may be devised without departing from the basic scope thereof, and the scope thereof is determined by the claims that follow.
1. A vending machine system, comprising:
- a command input interface for receiving user commands;
- a network interface configured to support a network connection with a network of vending machines; and
- a processor connected to the command input interface and the network interface, and configured to: receive a purchase order for the vending machine item, the purchase order being submitted by a customer, wherein a record of the purchase order is recorded and includes an identification of the customer and the purchase order; receive a payment amount for the vending machine item; receive an electronic refund request for at least a portion of the payment amount, wherein the refund request comprises an identification of the customer and the purchase order; and determine whether to refund the portion based on the identification of the customer, wherein the customer is identified by determining if the identification of the customer and the purchase order in the refund request matches the identification of the customer and the purchase order in the record of the purchase order.
2. The vending machine of claim 1, wherein determining whether to refund the portion comprises:
- transmitting via the network interface a request for the item at another vending machine in the network of vending machines; and
- receiving a response indicative of whether the item is available at least one other vending machine;
- if the item is available at least one other vending machine, providing an option to the customer to retrieve the item at the at least one other vending machine, in lieu of receiving a refund of the portion of the payment amount.
3. The vending machine of claim 1, wherein determining whether to refund the portion comprises determining whether the customer is a repeat customer based on the identification of the customer.
4. The vending machine of claim 1, wherein determining whether to refund the portion comprises determining whether the customer has previously requested a vending machine refund within a predetermined time period based on the identification of the customer.
5. The vending machine of claim 1, wherein the processor is further configured to refund the portion if customer information corresponding to the identification of the customer stored in a database satisfies refund conditions.
6. The vending machine of claim 1, wherein the refund conditions comprise a threshold number of purchases made by the customer.
7. The vending machine of claim 1, wherein determining whether to refund the request comprises determining whether the customer's money is lodged in a coin acceptor.
8. The vending machine of claim 1, wherein the processor is further configured to:
- determine whether the customer has made a repeated number of requests;
- if so, prevent the customer from making additional purchases at the vending machine and prevent the customer from making additional purchases at other vending machines in the vending machine network.
9. The vending machine of claim 1, wherein the processor is further configured to:
- grant the refund request, wherein granting the refund request comprises issuing the customer a retrieval identification number, wherein the retrieval identification number may be input into another vending machine in the vending machine network to retrieve another vending machine item of a same type as the ordered vending machine item.
International Classification: G06F 17/00 (20060101); G07C 3/00 (20060101); G07F 9/02 (20060101);