Validations: Any Way You Count Them, They Mean $$$$$
When most of us think of parking validations, we think of a little postage stamp that is stuck on tickets. Well, although that certainly is still the lion's share of the market, automated validation systems are beginning to make inroads.
A major concern of parking managers is the tracking of validation books, coupons and stamps. They are, in fact, the equivalent of money. A val stamp in the wrong hands (read that cashier) can mean missing funds. An all-day stamp on a $20 ticket means the revenue control system assumes no money should be collected. However, the cashier can easily process the ticket as a zero dollar amount and keep the difference for himself.
Automation, and a number of methods used by operators to account for validations, is making that more difficult.
Instituting automated payment systems has required that validations be automated too. This happens in three ways:
The online validator, usually related to bar code technology, is one technique. A validator, connected either by phone, hard-wired or Wi-Fi, is placed at each validation location. The parker's ticket is run though the validator, and the ticket number along with the location of the validator and perhaps any choices made (one hour, all day, etc.) is transmitted to the central system. When the ticket is presented for payment, the central system takes into account any online validations made and computes the fee accordingly.
The off-line validator, typically using magnetic stripe technology, writes the validation on the ticket's mag stripe when it is presented. Upon exit, the ticket is read, and the validation on the mag stripe tells the system to adjust the ticket price accordingly.
Validation coupons don't require additional hardware and have other interesting features. Available in both bar code and magnetic stripe, they are becoming more and more popular.
The validation coupons are provided by the ticket supplier and typically look exactly like tickets used in the system. They will have different printing indicating that they are validations and giving instructions on their use.
In most systems, the validation coupons are inactive when received from the supplier. The parking office "creates" validations by running the coupons through a device that either reads the bar codes and records them in the system memory or writes the validation type and tracking code on the magnetic stripe. They are then active and can be used in the system.
The merchant gives the validation coupon, as appropriate, to the parker. It is then inserted either before or after the ticket in the pay-on-foot machine or at the exit lane.
According to the suppliers, automated validations make up about 20% of the market; however, they are growing rapidly.
"We have seen a substantial increase in the use of automated validations over the past few years," says Peter Young, President of Digital Printing Systems. "There is no doubt in my mind that this is the direction in which the market is moving."
Tom Carter of the Toledo Ticket Co. concurs. "Orders for automated [validation] tickets are increasing virtually monthly; however, standard validation stamps still make up about 80% of our validation business."
"Many of the [validation] stamps we print now have bar codes on the stamps," says Young. "They are used for some machine readable systems or simply to allow the parking operator to track the validations. After all, validation stamps are money."
As for the stamps, they are primarily of the peel-off variety. The adhesive used peels easily from the wax-coated backing in the booklets, but adheres permanently to the ticket. The suppliers also place micro slits in the stamps so that if someone tries to remove them from the ticket, they will fall apart.
"The "lick and stick" type of stamp is almost gone," Carter says. "Customers will pay eight times more for the peel-off. The major issue is one of health. The lick-and-stick stamps are typically stapled to the ticket by the merchant. That's no good."
Both suppliers agree that a major issue is tracking the stamps from the printing plant to the merchant. They can be numbered by book, by page or by individual stamp in the book. It depends on the way the operators like to track their validations.
The manufacturers are happy to supply the stamps in any combination of coding. Typical stamps are 1 inch square, but 1-by- 2-inch stamps are used when the bar code is being read by a machine after the stamp is applied. Some systems cannot read the very tiny bars on the 1-inch stamps.
One other way to validate is use of metered machines. These stand-alone validation devices place a mark on the ticket equivalent to the use of the stamp. The benefit here is that there is no stamp, and the meters have resettable and non-resettable counters so that operators can track and invoice usage.
Of course, with validation machines, there is no "shrinkage," as there may be with validation stamps; however, there is the labor involved with reading and resetting meters.
Len Kilfoyle of the Valometer Co. says there is no question that automated payment systems have cut into his business. However, on the reverse side, organizations that haven't automated are looking more closely at their validation programs and that has helped.
Validation stamps are relatively uniquely North American. European equipment suppliers have adapted their equipment to fit the U.S./Canadian culture. In Europe, if merchants want to give a parking discount, they deduct the cost of parking from the parker's bill.
On this side of the Atlantic, the parking operator would prefer to be involved in the process. The validation stamp gives both the merchant and the operator the opportunity to merchandise the parking program. Merchants can show parkers that they are getting the discount (plus ensure that only parkers with tickets get the discount). Operators can, if they like, discount validations to attract parking and cut special deals with merchants to use them to "guide" parkers to certain parking facilities.
Thanks to Tom Carter of the Toledo Ticket Co., Len Kilfoyle of the Valometer Co. and Peter Young of Digital Printing Systems for their input for this article.