Supermarket: Let your fingers do the paying

"How would you like to pay--credit card or fingerprint?" Seattle-area store sets up biometric scanner at checkouts.

Jo Best Special to CNET News.com
2 min read
A supermarket has given its customers the choice of paying by fingerprint at a store in the state of Washington--and has found them surprisingly willing to use the biometric system.

U.S. chain Thriftway introduced the system, which uses technology from Pay By Touch, in its store in the Seattle area in 2002. It said it now sees thousands of transactions a month using the payment method.

Once people have enrolled in the Pay By Touch system, they have their fingerprint scanned as verification of identity at the checkout. They then choose which credit card they want to pay the bill with, having already registered the credit cards with the store.

Thriftway President Paul Kapioski said rather than shying away from the technology because of concerns about protecting their privacy, customer demand ensured that the biometric payment system made it past the pilot stage.

The fingerprint payment system was initially scheduled for a 60-day trial, but "people were quick to warm up to it...after 60 days, we made it part of our payment package," he said at the Retail Fraud Conference in London on Tuesday.

"We found people came to the store because of this--lots of senior citizens felt more secure not carrying money to the store," Kapioski said. "The major concern is 'biometric, fingerprint, what's it going to be used for?'...Once (customers) understood what it was used for, it became a nonissue," he added.

Kapioski added that one man even drove 400 miles to use the technology.

The main business driver for biometrics, he said, was cost; it enables the retailer to shave cents off the average cost of an electronic payment transaction. With the biometric system, customers are encouraged to use their debit card, which cost the company almost half as much as the same payment by credit card, for example.

Fraudulent transactions have dropped dramatically due to the system, which now makes up 30 percent of Thriftway's electronic payments, Kapioski said.

"During the last two, two-and-a-half years...there's not been a single fraudulent transaction on this system," he said.

Biometrics is not the only new retail technology to have raised concerns over protection of customers' privacy. Radio frequency identification systems, which place tracking microchips on merchandise, have been criticized for potentially creating an electronic trail of customers' whereabouts and shopping habits that police forces and marketers, for example, could follow.

John Davison, a research director at analyst firm Gartner, said customers were generally willing to accept technologies such as RFID if the benefits of such technology could be "sold" to them.

"Will customers object to RFID? Yes, if you don't sell it to them," he said. "Over two-thirds of customers will accept RFID, if you sell them the basic utilities."

However, he added that certain areas of retail were still technology-wary. "The nearer you get RFID to the payment process, consumers get less keen. When you start linking...to their personal information, they're even less keen."

Jo Best of Silicon.com reported from London.