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Finger prints { May 15 2002 }

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May 15, 2002, 4:13PM

It's kinda touch-and-go
New system lets Kroger shoppers pay with fingerprint
Copyright 2002 Houston Chronicle

COLLEGE STATION -- At Kroger stores here customers are getting their groceries without cash, check or credit card.

No, they're not using the five-finger discount. One finger will do.

They rely on a new little machine called SecureTouch-n-Pay which enables a finger to bring home the bacon and give cash back.

In the Bryan-College Station area, Kroger is trying out the new retail point-of-sale system in its three stores.

Shoppers who enroll free of charge to use the finger image machine -- officially known as a biometric electronic financial transaction processing system -- simply walk up to a cashier, say, "I'm going to pay with my fingerprint" and voilá.

Many customers are initially leery. They associate fingerprinting with getting hauled to jail -- not picking up milk.

But once they get over their fears and try it, they like it, said Sam Powel, co-manager of one of the three Kroger stores in the Bryan-College Station area.

At first, Powel said, "it was a Big Brother scenario. But that seems to have died down."

Women in particular appreciate SecureTouch, he said, because they don't have to bring in their purses.

The pilot program began three months ago. The three Bryan-College Station locations are the only Kroger stores in the nation experimenting with SecureTouch.

About 10 to 15 people per store sign up each week, a very small percentage of Kroger's customers.

To enroll in the fingerprint identity verification system, customers show a Kroger representative their driver's license and a credit card, and have their fingerprints recorded. Typically their phone number becomes their PIN.

SecureTouch software and hardware were developed by Austin-based Biometric Access Corp. Other companies have created similar fingerprint identity verification technology.

Customer feedback has been "very positive," said Gary Huddleston, Kroger's consumer affairs manager, who noted that the company is still evaluating the program. If it is deemed successful, he said, it may one day be implemented in Houston and other cities.

Kroger customer Mary Smith, an employee relations representative at Texas A&M University, had mixed feelings about SecureTouch when she first heard about it.

"I was maybe a little afraid of it, but I like new stuff," Smith said. "I just thought I'd try it.

"I think it's fine. It's quick. I don't have to write a check."

Smith has exceptionally dry skin and has to rub her finger behind her ear or against the side of her nose before pressing it on the small SecureTouch window.

The finger image-based verification system has two big benefits for Kroger, Huddleston said, one being "speed at the front end" which "is a savings to us."

The other benefit, for both Kroger and customers, is fewer forged checks.

If a thief were to come in with a stolen check and stolen ID belonging to someone enrolled in SecureTouch, the cashier -- after learning automatically from the computer that the check owner was enrolled in SecureTouch -- would become suspicious that the thief had not opted to use the quicker fingerprinting method of check cashing.

Kroger became interested in the finger image machine three years ago, when the state of Texas began its own pilot program with the intention of eliminating food stamp fraud. It came out with a finger image version of the "Lone Star Card" used by food stamp recipients. The state approached Kroger and asked if it would participate in the pilot program.

After a budget cut, the state abandoned the program, but Kroger -- the largest supermarket chain in the U.S. -- continued to explore the system.

Holly Rios, marketing manager at Biometric Access, said that no other grocery chain is using her company's SecureTouch for point-of-sale transactions. One of her company's competitors, Indivos, began trying out a similar system in one grocery store in Seattle about two weeks ago, Rios said.

A finger image machine might one day be in a store near you.

"It's all about convenience for the shopper," said Lorrie Griffith, associate editor of the Shelby Report, a trade journal specializing in the supermarket industry.

The self checkout machine is already fairly common, said Griffith, and other technologies are in the works -- including Electronic Product Code, which will enable a cart full of groceries to be scanned and totaled quickly without having to take them out of the cart.

Some customers will resist the fingerprint system because of privacy issues, said Griffith, who noted that there are grocery shoppers "who don't even want loyalty cards, because they gather information about you."

But they are a relatively small percentage of consumers, she said.

"Most people are very interested in convenience," said Griffith.

A few women in College Station belong to a gym near the Kroger, and after their workout they come to the store without a wallet or purse to buy Gatorade, Huddleston said.

Rios maintained that SecureTouch is very secure and has safeguards against identity theft.

The finger image payment process does not always work the first time. Sometimes a customer has to press his finger on the window more than once to activate the machine, because the finger is not positioned at the correct angle.

Tas Ates, a Blinn Junior College student and a pizza delivery driver, said that SecureTouch made him nervous at first.

He had a fantasy of his fingerprint being "captured and planted at a crime scene," but he's gotten over that, he said with a smile.

Kroger customer Mary Smith said she has a daughter in Katy who wants nothing to do with the finger image method of payment. She told her mother that it is "a way to get into your identity."

It's funny, Smith said, "you'd think it would be the old fart who'd be afraid."

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