Hotel Online Special Report

Biometric Payment: 
The New Age of Currency
Also: High Tech Burrito, Berkeley CA
To view more articles covering technology for the hospitality industry please visit the Hospitality Upgrade Web site  or to request a free publication please call (770) 953-2300 or email.
By Geneva Rinehart / Reprinted from the Spring 2000 Issue of Hospitality Upgrade Magazine, formerly the Hotel & Restaurant Technology UPDATE Magazine / [email protected]

A small company in Berkeley, California is paving the way for cardless and cashless payment at the point-of-sale—with more convenience to the consumer and many more benefits to the merchant than ever before. Introducing the next generation of electronic payment via SmartTouch Inc. featuring  your very own unique fingerprint. 

First let’s talk convenience

Proponents of this technology praise it as a convenience paradise.  Customers are freed from PIN numbers, cash, checks and plastic credit cards.   Instead, a stored finger image is matched (or rejected) with the customer’s and a payment mode (credit, debit, or ATM) is selected for a purchase. Once registered, a customer’s finger image is stored and used for secure payment transfers at any participating POS.

Molleen Theodore writes about this technology, “Increasingly, the way to keep information secure is to offer up a piece of yourself—a biometric identifier—to be recorded and used to verify your identity. Biometric identifiers are physiological and behavioral characteristics that are completely unique to you. “ 1

Biometric identifiers work like this.  With the SmartTouch fingerprint device, you place your finger on a scanner, also called a reader. A photograph of your fingerprint is taken, and software converts the fingerprint into a map of minutiae points—not the swirled lines we’ve all seen, but tiny irregularities within the print—which is stored for reference. When ready to make a purchase using the SmartTouch technology, a user holds a finger to the scanner, and the computer matches the stored print-map to the fingerprint. Only the minutiae points are stored in the image, not the actual fingerprint.

For merchants the benefits are just starting to surface. The most obvious include faster and more secure payments per customer. No longer will cashiers need to see identification or get a signed credit card slip because the scanned image is almost fraud-proof identification. Biometrics, because of their uniqueness to every person, are even more secure than current standards of payment. 

Improved loyalty programs are another interesting byproduct of this technology. Gone are the paper-punched-redeeming cards good for free sandwiches or sodas. Now with every customer purchase loyalty points or rewards are saved electronically and can be redeemed at the POS. Add to this the potential of using this technology for other things such as “keyless entry” for hotel rooms, paying for drinks at poolside or purchasing more credits at the slot machine, and you begin to see the scope of this technology.

Think of the change to the local quick service restaurant drive-thru. With the touch of a finger a restaurant could in seconds have a payment of a meal, find out the customer’s most ordered items and have the address of the customer to send out future coupons for their most ordered items.  The restaurant provides better service and the customers receive their meals faster and are able to pay without paying.

One of the benefits to the hospitality industry is in the cleansing of information. Hotels are continually purging their records to keep accurate information on their guests (aka CRM). With the use of this technology a front desk clerk could know instantly at check-in that Mr. John Smith during his last stay purchased three Cokes from the mini-bar, two martini’s in the lounge, ate dinner at the hotel restaurant where he ordered the special and since his last visit has moved from Chicago to Atlanta. All that from a fingerprint. Pretty amazing. And scary too. With all this information available and linked to a single image it is not difficult to understand why people are concerned with the potential uses and possibly misuses of this technology.

We’re not there yet

Biometric technology for payment processing has been in beta use for at least the past year, and  SmartTouch has been working with a major US credit card processing company to prepare the technology for mass use. While the betas have been mostly successful there are no immediate plans to roll this out into the hospitality industry. Instead, the schedule is to introduce this technology to the multi-lane retail chains such as grocery stores and Walmarts/Kmarts within 8-12 months. But don’t be too surprised if this new form of payment takes off once the masses are introduced to it and become accustomed to its convenience.  Remember, it wasn’t so long ago that the masses became accustomed to using a little plastic card. 

With an infrastructure already being created, the price of the biometric sensors decreasing monthly and the given ease of retrofitting existing CC processors, this technology could be hitting the hospitality industry in a big way next year. 

There is so much more about biometrics to be covered. Consider this only a start.  There are many proponents and adversaries of this technology, as it should be for any technology with such a wide potential for Hollywood-size disaster.  Each side has valid arguments. The government thinks this is such an important topic that the legislature has been arguing both sides for quite some time.  And from a prophetic standpoint, the cash-less society revelation hovers over this technology like an eerie doomsday cloud — but then how many times in the last 12 months have we been told, “This is the end of the world!” The best advice I ever heard was, “It never hurts to be prepared.”

High Tech Burrito, Berkeley CA
In early 1998 High Tech Burrito (HTB), a Berkeley quick service restaurant, wanted to give more meaning to its name. A very frequent customer had a product prototype that needed testing. The restaurant was approached by SmartTouch to become a pilot project for the its finger image electronic payment system. From HTB’s standpoint it had all the possibilities to better track customer loyalty and payment. HTB’s previous method of loyalty tracking was the no-so-high-tech Burrito card, where 5 stamps were rewarded with a free soda and 10 stamps a free burrito. 

The new loyalty program enticed customers to register their finger print image through a SmartTouch scanner. The one-time registration took only a few minutes and required a credit card to be swiped and then a finger image scanned to register with SmartTouch. As a reward HTB customers were given HTB points good for food purchases and were automatically enrolled in the Club HTB loyalty program, which also rewarded customers with points for every food purchase.

HTB estimated that at this single location they had about 1,000 consistent customers (customers that returned at least 2 to 3 times a month). By the end of the year-long pilot HTB reported between 65 and 75 percent of the consistent customers had signed up for Club HTB via SmartTouch.

While an older POS limited the pilot, the possibilities were there for further use of this information.  Bob Boardman, HTB’s MIS during the pilot program, said, “ This is more than just a payment system, it is a complete loyalty program.” Boardman noticed that the convenience of this system helped to increase the average ticket at HTB and in the future could be used to generate coupons for upgrading a customer to a more expensive meal, enticing the customer to try something different. Boardman also said that the one down side was that the loyalty program was so good that there were always guaranteed give-aways.  Not as easy to misplace your finger as it was the old Burrito card.

Geneva Rinehart is the Associate Editor of Hospitality Upgrade Magazine and often covers emerging technologies in the hospitality industry
1 By Molleen Theodore (7/22/98) "Biometrics: You Are Your Own Password"
Also see:
  • As of June 2000 SmartTouch changed its name to VeriStar Corporation. Its website has also changed to
  • Summary U.S. House of Representatives, One Hundred Fifth Congress, On “Biometrics and the Future of Money” Room 2128, Rayburn House Office Building , May 20, 1998, Washington D.C.
  • - International Biometric Group
  • How to advocate Biometrics Legislation in the age of Privacy Fears, Tim Schellberg, J.D. industry lobbyist.
Geneva Rinehart
Associate Editor
Hospitality Upgrade magazine 
and the Hospitality website
[email protected]

Also See: The Battle for the High-Speed Internet Guest / Geneva Rinehart / Feb 1999 
Electronic Payment Provider, Southern DataComm, Expands into Asia / June 1999 

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