Solutions security - Use the index finger

Fingerprint scanning may seem like science fiction - more akin to a James Bond film than a tangible retail tool - but any retailer that dismisses it as such may be taken by surprise in the very near future.

According to some vendors, the UK could see live trials by the end of February. In the US, an international video rental retailer, which chooses not to be named, has already been trialling a third-party fingerprint scanning service at five stores.

Customers must register their card details and give a fingerprint to service provider Pay by Touch. Once prints are in the system, all customers need to do to complete the transaction is put their finger on a scanner and punch in their PIN number. According to Pay by Touch, this cuts the time needed for customers to dig around in their wallet or purse to find a card to pay with.

Pay by Touch chief executive officer Craig Ramsey explains: 'The numbers show a cut in average tender time of 34 per cent. Some 60 per cent of sales in a video rental shop are made between 4pm and 9pm on a Saturday. Lines get so long that 13 per cent of people in the queue give up before they are served. We found that the participating stores reduced turn-aways by 75 per cent.'

Pay by Touch opened an office in the UK recently and is confident that it will get the same results over here. However, in this case the UK isn't lagging behind the US. Oxford, Swindon and Gloucester Co-op has been developing self-checkout systems at some of its stores for about a year.

One of the key issues to self-service tills is authorisation of certain controlled products, such as alcohol and cigarettes. Until now the stores have had to rely on staff going over to the till to verify the customer's age, which slows down the transaction. Co-op, in collaboration with its self-checkout provider, Optimal Robotics, is about to launch the trial of a fingerprint-based age verification system as a voluntary scheme.

Shopper appeal

Oxford, Swindon and Gloucester Co-op general manager Bill Laird says: 'Innovations such as Biometrics allow us to leverage our investment, while actively improving customer service standards. The new system is purely voluntary and we will monitor customer take-up very carefully.'

Laird is well advised to be conscious of the Big Brother effect. With something as controversial as fingerprint scanning, it is customer acceptance, rather than the technology, that is the biggest barrier to widespread use of the solution for payment authorisation.

However, Ramsey points out that trials in the US have been warmly received by customers, who are confident that the data they are handing over is secure. 'We've coped with concerns about taking fingerprints by only sampling pieces of the print. You can't reverse-engineer the whole print from these,' he says.

'Customer acceptance is extremely high. They are concerned neither with us holding their fingerprints nor their card details. Within 30 days of the pilot going live, we had managed to enrol an average 60 per cent of the customer catchment. After 120 days this rose to 80 per cent. This was achieved without any incentive to customers.'

Benefits for employers

However, NCR technology evangelist Dan White believes that it is not customers but employees who will see fingerprint scanning in the retail environment. He says: 'From a widespread use perspective, scanning employees rather than customers is much more controlled and is easier to implement.

There's a clearer payback for the retailer. It provides a lot of benefits, most obviously in time and attendance management. From an employee standpoint it's not as big a deal. Its just part of whether they want to work there or not.'

Toshiba TEC national reseller manager Peter Dodd is also convinced that the first implementations of fingerprint scanning will be providing easy log-ins for checkout staff. Every new log-in password created on the network costs a few pounds to produce and distribute. With 100 per cent turnover in staff in some cases, this can amount to a huge and unnecessary cost.

Toshiba TEC is presently signing up UK retailers for trials in fingerprint-activated till points.

'The key benefit is providing that extra bit of security that verifies who is on the till. You can't swap fingers at the end of the day,' Dodd says.

So, why the big interest in fingerprint scanning now? Previously, the technology was deemed to be too expensive and too unreliable to be viable.

However, the threat of international terrorism across the world has accelerated its development and dragged down prices on a raft of scanning and monitoring technologies, including fingerprint scanning.

Ramsey says: 'After September 11 this technology has progressed at a geometric rate. Since then, prices for systems have reduced twenty-fold. About 4 per cent of the population can't use fingerprint recognition because of physical reasons such as old age. However, the overall read-rate is good. We guarantee no false positives, so no one is going to be able to defraud the system. We have about 4 to 5 per cent (of people) failing on the first scan, but the print is recognised on subsequent scans.'

Roll-outs likely soon

So, with the benefits being demonstrated and the technology apparently robust and affordable, how long is it going to be before we are likely to see fingerprint scanning in widespread use?

Ramsey is optimistic that roll-outs will follow trials swiftly. 'We'll see pilots in the next 90 to 100 days and roll-outs soon after that,' he says. 'All you are going to need to find out how good the technology is, is 60 to 90 days.'

Others are not convinced that take-up will be so swift. White believes that it will still be a number of years before fingerprint scanning will be in widespread use in the UK. 'There have been a few trials, but in order for it to become widespread it's still a few years out.

'There needs to be some changes of mindset for this to happen, so we are looking at probably three to five years before we'll see fingerprint scanning in widespread use.'