April 12, 2004

Bill Payment Kiosks

A large number of customers of Cingular and other companies prefer to make payments in stores

By SARA CLEMENCE, Business writer
First published: Saturday, April 10, 2004

A machine that acts like a reverse ATM, taking your money instead of paying it out, might seem an incredibly unpopular device.

Not at Cingular Wireless stores in the upstate region, managers say.

The company has installed bill-payment kiosks in most of its stores around upstate, including three of its four Capital Region locations, to deal with a large number of people coming in to settle their accounts.

In an age of online bill payment and automatic debits, there is a segment of the population -- even people who use high-tech mobile phones -- that doesn't want to say the check is in the mail.

"Thousands of customers a month walk into our stores to pay their bills," said Robert Holliday, Cingular's vice president and general manager for upstate New York.

In the few days after a bill cycle is "dropped," or sent out to customers, he said, the stores see increased traffic.

"We would have an inordinate amount of customers coming in on certain days, and, unfortunately, we had them waiting in line" before the payment stations were installed, he said.

Cingular's situation is not unique, though the volume may be. Whether to save the price of a stamp, pay bills at the last second or use cash or credit cards instead of checks, in-person payment is still alive.

"I think they're incredibly popular," said Kathleen Dunleavy, spokeswoman for Sprint PCS, which also has payment stations in stores. "A lot of the times, if a customer is down to the wire, they like to be able to come in and pay it. It's credited that day."

Verizon Wireless customers can pay in stores, said spokesman Dan Diaz. Land-line customers are able to pay their bills at Price Chopper supermarkets, where they also can settle at no charge utility bills for Niagara Mohawk, NYSEG and Time Warner Cable.

"It's convenience that we afford our customers that they look kindly upon," said Mona Golub, spokeswoman for the Rotterdam-based Price Chopper chain.

Verizon also has installed so-called Vcom payment kiosks at 7-Eleven stores in several states, including Maryland, California and Arizona.

"You go pump a tank of gas, you buy a cup of coffee, and you pay your bill," Diaz said.

Whether in-person payment is a growing trend or has a regional component is hard to discern. Companies guard their payment-method numbers as if they were trade secrets, though Chris Finkle, spokesman for Niagara Mohawk, did say "the vast, vast majority (of customers) pay their bills through the mail."

And Holliday, the Cingular executive, said the people paying in person are not stereotypical lower-income or less-savvy customers. "These are higher-end calling-plan customers that are actually paying their bill in the stores," he said.

The once-common practice of paying bills at the grocery store lost favor over the years, but could come back, said Arun Jain, chairman of the department of marketing at the University at Buffalo's School of Management.

"I think we are becoming such an impersonal society that people are looking for a human touch," he said.

For companies, getting people into stores makes good business sense, Jain said. It's easier to makes sales in person, for one thing.

"By talking with the person, they may be able to sell them other services," he said. "Or maybe make them upgrade their product. They may even offer a special deal."

A grouchy customer may be more easily soothed face to face, he said. Putting kiosks in places like convenience stores might not increase the sales opportunities, but might be good for 7-Eleven's bottom line.

For Cingular, at very least, it has shortened the lines.

"In retail in general, any traffic is good traffic as long as you can manage it well," Holliday said.

Albany, N.Y. -- timesunion.com

Posted by Craig at April 12, 2004 02:37 PM