Florida Utility Links to 7-Eleven for In-Store Bill Pay
September 7, 2004 Robert Gast
Thanks to modern conveniences, busy Central Floridians can get wired on ice-cold energy drinks and pay their electric bills all in one stop. Folks with electricity, water, or Internet services supplied by Kissimmee Utility Authority can now remit for these services 24/7 at 7-Eleven convenience stores all across the state. And at the heart of this new system lies an OS/400 server.
In July 2004, 7-Eleven’s own self-service Vcom financial services kiosks in Central Florida began accepting utility bill payments, a service not offered at most convenience stores. Proprietary Vcom touch screens allow Kissimmee Utility Authority customers to settle accounts with cash, automated clearing house (ACH) checking accounts, and ATM cards. Instructions appear in English or Spanish, and receipts are issued on the spot. So far, 334 Vcom machines handle KUA transactions.
Convenience retailer 7-Eleven has more than 24,000 stores operating in the United States and 17 other countries. Total sales for 2003 exceeded $36 billion. KUA serves 70,000 customers in Central Florida with a generating capacity of 447 megawatts.
A KUA study of preferred bill-payment methods conducted before this arrangement revealed that roughly 50 percent of the utility’s customers paid their bills in person. Walk-ins exceeded a staggering 25,000 people per month. “Some customers want receipts, and others want to pay in cash,” says Tony Morelli, KUA’s IT manager of application development. The study triggered an initiative to improve customer convenience and to reduce the number of visitors to KUA’s offices.
Once a deal was struck between the companies, Morelli, with 27 years of development experience, was assigned the task of giving the bill payment system life, and he had 30 days to do it. KUA has an AS/400 Model 730 in its headquarters in Kissimmee. The 730 serves 50 to 70 interactive users, who access KUA’s core business application, a CRM-like system for utility companies developed by SunGard HTE.
M&M’S AND MONEY ORDERS
The 7-Eleven stores already had an electronic bill payment (EBP) system in place so that rushed customers could clear ATM transactions, cash payroll and government checks, purchase money orders, or transfer money through Western Union. The bill payment service offered through the Vcom system is powered by ChoicePay, a service-based solution provided by e-Money Systems, based in Tulsa, Oklahoma. E-Money contracts with a variety of billers to provide secure EBP solutions, and has over one million active customers.
Morelli and programmer Robert Beloir first focused on getting current payment information into this system. Morelli developed a CL program that runs in a subsystem used by similar programs that monitor other events. This CL wakes up at 10-minute intervals to submit a job that checks an intermediate, secured FTP site. Visits to this site are staggered with 10-minute Vcom update intervals.
Morelli’s program retrieves a list of the files at the FTP site and checks to see if new payment data exists. It then converts the data to EBCDIC, maps it, and verifies it against the HTE database. Payment data includes account numbers, transaction amounts, the time the transaction was completed, and payment type. Then this program applies these transactions to a homegrown cash receipts program on the AS/400. “We just about had it in 30 days,” Morelli says, regarding the deadline.
Within minutes, a bill payment made at 7-Eleven shows up on KUA green screens. According to Morelli, “It looks like the customer walked into the office and made the payment.”
Payments are collected and processed during routine close out at 2:00 p.m. Eastern Time for the next business day. KUA’s cashiering area balances and posts the day’s payments at this point. ChoicePay also generates and delivers a detailed reconciliation and settlement file with all the day’s payments, which KUA verifies against all payments received throughout the day. “This lets us catch things that we missed, or find transactions that didn’t get transmitted or received.” Morelli says.
ONE-STOP MEGAWATT SHOP
KUA sends e-Money a balance file every morning before the business day begins, enabling customers to complete transactions on the 7-Eleven side. This lets Vcom kiosk users review their account balances. Although the link between the kiosk and KUA’s database isn’t in real time, customers can still complete transactions and get a receipt. “We also identify which accounts are on check hold,” says Morelli.
The cost to KUA in time and expense was minimal. “This project took two people four weeks, while working on other things,” Morelli says. “Really, we spent about one man month working on it. It was a fairly simple approach. We had the building blocks on the AS/400 to make it all simple. Two CL programs and four RPG programs was all it took, he says.
KUA management is happy with the new system, Morelli says. Now customers can pay at their corner 7-Eleven, in addition to paying utility bills in person, by drafting, by mail, or on KUA’s Web site.
OH, THANK HEAVEN
KUA expects to see a drop in the number of cars that fill its parking lot at lunchtime, as well as a reduction in transaction costs. The 7-Eleven has one-upped the competition again, with yet another service that almost no other competitor offers. And KUA customers can pay their bill and then graze 7-Eleven’s aisles with a receipt for their utility bill payment in hand.
Morelli says that he wants to write a Web service in C# to handle these transactions interactively and to replace the current batch system. When the Web service is called, stored procedures on the AS/400 pass the appropriate response to the kiosk. To that end, he says, “A customer will walk up to a 7-Eleven ATM, type in their account number, which will call our Web service. We will verify the account number and pass back the customer’s name, a simple service address, and the amount due.”
KUA bill payment at 7-Eleven is very new. The utility’s marketers and those who work for 7-Eleven now need to let Central Florida know that municipal utility bill pay is available. To do that, Morelli says, “They are going to put inserts into bills in August, and they have signs in the main building; 7- Eleven will advertise it in the area, too.” Oh, thank heaven for 7-Eleven.
Robert Gast has written extensively about technology and business management since 1986. He is the managing partner of Chicago-based Evant Group. E-mail: email@example.com.