Advantage Refreshments knows its vending machines look just like those operated by rivals, so it's trying to attract repeat business with a loyalty program from payments hardware maker USA Technologies.

"We're all selling the same products — Coke, Fritos, stuff like that — and for the same general price. It's not like everybody else charges $2 for a Coke and I can charge $1," says Gary Joyner, general manager of Advantage, a Ft. Myers-Fl.-based company that distributes vending machines, primarily in Florida.

Advantage's loyalty program offers cash and other rewards stashed inside the machines. The company plans to participate in a new program from USA Technologies that is designed to attract new and repeat business.

The early branding for the program is "Reward Yourself," though the final name may be MORE, says Veronica Rosa, a vice president at USA Technologies.

"Reward Yourself" is a prepaid card program that has a mobile twist, since it can integrate with USA Technologies' mobile app, which was developed in partnership with Verizon Wireless. "The more [consumers] use the card, the more they save," Rosa says.

The prepaid cards can be pre-loaded or funded by the consumer. The cards can also be offered by an employer as a "gift" or subsidy for machines deployed at the workplace.

Advantage uses the prepaid card but not the mobile rewards program, Joyner says.

The preloaded cards and the consumer Web portal can be customized to match other branding used by the vending machine or the retailer.

"The mobile marketing app takes the prepaid and reward program to another level with vending machine location information, the ability to send gifts to friends, couponing capabilities, etc.," Rosa says.

USA Technologies is also working with the Isis mobile wallet on a separate mobile loyalty program. USA Technologies is enabling Isis payments in vending machines in Austin and Salt Lake City, the two locations where Isis has been testing its contactless payment technology.  Isis, which was created by AT&T, Verizon Wireless and T-Mobile, also supports mobile payments at Coke vending machines in Austin.

USA Technologies' Isis-based loyalty program, called "Fifth Vend Free," provides free products from vending operators based on their use of the Isis wallet. USA Technologies is expanding the program to use its base of 100,000 contactless payment terminals with Isis SmartTap mobile technology for rewards acceptance and redemption.

The positioning of the two mobile loyalty plays is different, Rosa says.

Reward Yourself is "operator specific, whereas the Isis mobile wallet wouldn't be as specific in terms of driving loyalty to one [vending machine] operator versus another," Rosa says.

USA Technologies will begin a major push for mobile payment tech at vending machines as Isis starts its nationwide rollout, Rosa says. Isis has not announced a full national deployment.

"We are trying to sign up customers for the [Isis] promotion now, so they are ready to go as marketing around that starts," Rosa says. "Our goal would be to have all of our operators with NFC devices on their network participating in that promotion." More than half of USA Technolgies' ePort Connect machines support Near Field Communication payments, and its ePort G8 system can be NFC enabled by attaching an Isis sticker.

The link between mobile payments, rewards and vending machines is relatively new, says Gil Luria, an analyst at Wedbush Securities.

"There's not a lot of targeted loyalty programs out there at vending machines," says Luria. "First of all, there's very little electronic payments at machines."

The expansion of NFC and other contactless payment technology should give rewards and loyalty programs a boost at vending machines, Luria says.

"Vending machines are, for good and bad, habitual," Luria says. "If you have someone who visits a vending machine often, that's a perfect candidate for a loyalty program."

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