Biometric methods other than fingerprints—such as identifying a retinal scan, facial shape or voiceprint—are likely to be explored several years down the road, but such methods are not considered economically viable yet within the razor-thin retail margins in the United States.
Those other methods are currently viewed as more intrusive than fingerprinting, and would probably encounter correspondingly more resistance from consumers. Retailers hope, however, that over time the acceptance of biometrics will increase.
Those U.S. preferences are not globally universal, said Shannon Riordan, the chief marketing officer for biometric authentication vendor Pay By Touch, which makes the system that Piggly Wiggly is using.
"In China, for example, the retina scan is preferable to the finger because they feel [a retina scan] is more sanitary," Riordan said.
In the United States today, though, getting consumers to accept mere finger-scanning is proving tricky.
"Were still trying to get over that hurdle of consumer resistance," Bolt said. "There must be an incentive for the consumer to do it."
Bolts chain has offered free turkeys and other merchandise for consumers who sign up for the finger scans. "The majority of our customer base does not recognize the value [of biometric checkout] to them. Last week, we enrolled 23 customers. But if I could give them something [that gives them an incentive] to enroll, I could enroll another 5,000 in one week," she said.
Ultimately, theres only so much a chain can do to make its customers feel comfortable with any new technology. "It will all come together when it becomes the norm rather than some outlying technology," Bolt said. "Its just going to take time."
Pay By Touchs Riordan said consumer education and awareness are critical issues in accelerating consumer acceptance of the technology. Pay By Touch has its systems in place at about 300 retail locations, Riordan said, with plans for "several thousand by the end of 06."
"Until we have a stronger and greater presence in the marketplace, that [negative perception] will be one of the greater hurdles to overcome," Riordan said. "The concerns are typically in areas of privacy or security."
Riordan said she has heard the "mark of the beast" concerns and offered a comment that echoes the stance of much of the retail industry: "This is strictly a way to more safely and efficient process transactions and nothing more. Pay By Touch has nothing to do with religion."
Fingerprinting itself suffers from bad associations, courtesy of movies and TV police shows. The perception is that peoples fingerprints are taken only when they are accused of crimes.
Pay By Touch tries to stay clear of that association by avoiding the term "fingerprint" altogether. "We dont use that word. We talk about a finger image," she said.
Its not merely a question of semantics. The traditional fingerprint is created by pressing the finger onto an inkpad and then inking the copy of that fingerprint onto paper.
Pay By Touchs system, on the other hand, scans the fingers ridges and converts the information into a series of stored numbers. That means that, unlike in the traditional police setup, the image of the finger itself isnt kept on file, but numbers and data points that describe the image are saved.
The result, according to Pay By Touch, is that a fingerprint cant be recreated using data from its files. "We dont share any of the information," Riordan said.
Privacy activist Albrecht has been publicly questioning the security mechanisms behind the system, wondering if it would indeed be that difficult to steal a fingerprint and create a fake finger to fool the system.
"Imagine if every time I touched a doorknob or a wine glass, I inadvertently transmitted my PIN number?" Albrecht asked.
Pay By Touch technology has gotten more sophisticated in recent years, and various security challenges to fingerprint authentication—from Gummi Fingers to using severed fingers—may no longer work.
Citing capabilities detailed in one of the companys patents, Riordan said many security threats wont fool its systems. "Theres a component of how this works that requires it be a live finger. There needs to be blood pulsing through it," she said.