High Tech Shopping: Pay for your groceries via fingerprints

Supermarket shoppers may soon be able to walk out of the store, bags in hand, and leave only their fingerprints. So-called ?electronic wallets? have been installed in 2,500 checkout lanes at Albertsons, Supervalu and CVS stores, allowing customers to let their finger do the paying. Customers? fingerprint images and credit card information have been pre-registered into the stores? computer systems. The James Bond-like technology guards against fraud and cuts retailers? processing costs, says Pay By Touch, the San Francisco company that sells the system.

?It takes two seconds. … No more fishing in your wallet or purse for credit cards,? says company spokesman Ryan Ross. The electronic technology, which costs about $200 per checkout lane, was one of the futures envisioned for the corner supermarket at a recent Food Marketing Institute convention. Other concepts included computer kiosks that spew out recipes keyed to customers? food purchases and computer screens attached to shopping carts for scanning goods and directing shoppers to sales items.

About 200 exhibitors in the $457 billion grocery store industry showed their wares to supermarket executives at the San Diego Convention Center show. Analysts say the cutthroat supermarket industry is causing traditional grocers to evaluate dozens of futuristic devices in hopes of cutting costs and attracting consumers. The grocery business is being squeezed by a surge in convenience foods sales, from fast-food sandwiches and pre-packaged dinners at neighborhood boutique markets to grocery sales at Wal-Mart stores. Indeed, the restaurant industry?s share of the U.S. food dollar has climbed to 46.4 percent, up from 25 percent in 1955, according to the National Restaurant Association. ?Technology is going to reshape the food industry, although it?s still too early to tell which formats will win,? says Ted Taft, managing director at Meridian Consulting in Connecticut.

None of the flashiest products at the convention has hit local retail aisles. But if the test-marketing is successful, it could be a matter of months before shoppers are paying with their fingerprints and consulting in-store computer consoles for advice, analysts say. One such device is the U-Scan Shopper, a small computer console attached to the top push-bar of the shopping cart. The electronic screen?developed by Fujitsu Transaction Solutions Inc., of Frisco, Texas, and Klever Marketing Inc. of Salt Lake City, Utah?allows customers to scan products as they?re putting the cans and other goods in the cart, instead of at the checkout counter. The customer bags the groceries in the cart while shopping. A customer, when finished shopping, must take the bagged groceries out of the cart and weigh them at a self-checkout stand. The computer knows the approximate weight of the scanned items, a deterrent to shoplifting.
Other features of U-Scan Shopper include a store directory, a recipe library, and the capability to order sandwiches from the deli (the screen notifies the customer when the food?s ready) and to place refill orders at the pharmacy. The console also alerts shoppers when they have come close to sales items. ?We?ll have 35 to 40 sensors throughout the store letting customers know when, say, they?re next to the special of the day,? says Arthur Portugal, president of Klever Marketing. The company will soon begin test-marketing the U-Scan Shopper.

For consumers reeling from high gas prices, Excentus Corp. may have showcased the best technology on the convention floor. The company, based in Irving, Texas, partners with supermarkets with gasoline pumps outside to give fuel discounts to customers who buy food and then fill ?er up. Purchasing boxes of spaghetti, for instance, can bring a three-cent-a-gallon savings on gas, says Excentus spokesman Brandon Logsdon. Some supermarkets in the Midwest and the East are already using the technology. ?You get to watch while the price of gasoline rolls down in real time,? Logsdon says.