A new lottery sales system being installed at thousands of convenience, liquor and grocery stores statewide has experienced breakdowns of up to several hours at a time this week, officials said yesterday, causing frustration among store owners and heartburn for avid players in search of their daily numbers.
Customers have let store owners hear their displeasure - especially those who can't play the popular Keno game.
"You should see the looks on their faces," said John Christopoulos, an owner of Christo's Discount Liquors in Ferndale. "You should see these people. They're like sheep. They have to have their fix. They should call Charles Schwab and invest their money."
Maryland Lottery director Buddy W. Roogow said the problem with the new machines, which connect to central computers by satellite technology instead of by phone lines, started a few weeks ago and is being worked on by the vendor, Georgia-based Scientific Games International.
"We're addressing it and dealing with it as we speak," Roogow said yesterday. "I can't tell you exactly why we're having this problem. ... Anytime you implement new technology, you tend to have problems."
About 1,800 new touch-screen terminals have been installed since last month, with the remaining 2,400 to be in place by July. At times, all of the new ones have been down. More commonly, the outages have been sporadic, with machines off-line for minutes, Roogow said.
So far, it is unclear how much revenue the state has lost because of the glitches.
But under its five-year contract with the state, Scientific Games must compensate the state for money lost because of equipment problems.
The outages are also a nuisance for store owners, who earn a 5 percent commission on sales, said Pete Samios, president of the 400-plus-member Maryland Lottery Agents Association.
Last fall, lottery officials decided to replace the state's 10-year-old sales terminals with a more advanced, touch-screen version that has other more modern features.
Scientific Games, the Georgia-based company that also provided the older machines, will be paid nearly one penny of each dollar spent on lottery tickets bought from the terminals.
In the fiscal year that ended last June, the lottery generated $477 million in net revenue for the state. For the fiscal year that ends later this month, the budgeted goal is $484 million, and Roogow expects to exceed that projection.
Maryland can ill-afford balky machines. Lottery players provide the state with its third-largest source of money, after income and sales taxes.
The machines are used to sell everything from daily Pick-3 tickets to chances to win the Mega Millions jackpots. The satellite technology, Roogow said, has been tested and is being used successfully in other states. Maryland store owners and managers have been given training sessions on how to use the new equipment.
Jack Milani, a partner in Monaghan's Pub in Woodlawn, said his two new machines were installed Wednesday and he had trouble Thursday.
But by yesterday, even though he feared he might "hex" himself, he reported that things were going fine. "I'm hoping the worst is behind this particular location," Milani said.
Samios, the lottery agents association head, said he hasn't heard too many complaints about the changeover but isn't surprised at the road bumps. "It's a brand-new machine. You're going to have some foul-ups," he said. "It's like having a 10-year-old car as opposed to a brand-new car. It might have a few bugs, but it's better than an old car.
"In the long run, it'll be fine," he said. "A month or two from now everyone will say, 'It's a great machine.'"
Kap Park, who owns the Pennington Market convenience store near Curtis Bay in Baltimore, said he is still using one of the old machines and isn't sure when to expect delivery of his new model.
But he has been hearing about problems elsewhere from customers who come to his store and are relieved to find that his machine is up and running.
At Christo's, co-owner Madia Toll was frazzled by midafternoon. "They've been down all day today," she said. "My customers are coming in for Keno.
"And they're not happy."