Firewood Vending Machine Ignites Sales for One Association After Pandemic Slowdown
Before the pandemic, the Bong Naturalist Association brought in a steady stream of revenue selling firewood to campers in person. After pandemic restrictions caused a 60 percent drop in income, the group installed a vending machine to sell the bundled wood. The result: blazing sales and happier volunteers and customers.
Like most other associations, the pandemic forced the Bong Naturalist Association, a membership organization whose efforts support the Richard Bong State Recreation Area in Wisconsin, to change the way it did things. For example, one of BNA’s primary revenue generators pre-pandemic was the sale of firewood to campers who visited the park.
“It used to be manual,” said Alan Orban, chairperson for BNA’s Firewood committee. “It used to be volunteers that ran it Fridays and Saturdays, and on holiday weekends, they’d do Sundays, too.”
Even though sales were just on the weekends, they were brisk due to the many campers who needed firewood for their visits. However, once the pandemic hit and restrictions on in-person contact were in place, sales plummeted. A newsletter BNA publishes noted that “income dropped by 60 percent” during the early part of the pandemic.
With revenue down, the organization was trying to figure out what to do when a member offered a suggestion.
“One of our members travels extensively to different campgrounds and found a place that sold firewood with a vending machine, and suggested we consider that,” Orban said. BNA’s president then researched the idea and found a vendor who sold the organization a machine with service and maintenance.
The machine was installed late last spring, and BNA, concerned about how long it would take to recoup the cost of the machine, raised the price of firewood from $5 a bundle to $7 a bundle. Once in place, the machine had swift results, including a surprise about peak sales.
“The sales are extraordinary,” Orban said. “The machine is 24/7, and the sales are very convenient for the campers. They don’t have to wait for Friday or Saturday to stock up on firewood. Surprisingly, we have bigger sales during the week.”
A Boost for Volunteers and Customers
While weekend sales of firewood were previously handled by BNA volunteers, those volunteers are quite content now that the vending machine is in place.
“The volunteers were mostly older people, many 70-plus, that ran the sales on Fridays and Saturdays,” Orban said. “It was difficult for the older people to pull the firewood off the stacks and load the vehicles. Now that it’s 24/7 with the machine, the customers get their own bundles and load up their own vehicles. Most of the volunteers are very happy about not having to come in and manually take care of customers.”
He added that “the customers are happy also because the firewood sales are 24/7 all week long 365 days a year.”
BNA had expected it to take two years to recoup the price of the machine through its sales, but they’ve already surpassed that goal. Orban said the group is glad sales are going so well because it allows the association to be more supportive of the park, whose budget also took a hit during the pandemic.
“The Bong Naturalist Association uses that [revenue] for activities here on Bong, wherever they need help,” he said. “The BNA is very pleased with the vending machine.”