Sep 6, 1999 12:00 PM, KIM ANN ZIMMERMANN

SALEM, Utah -- Customers using the self-checkout system at the U-Check supermarket here are scanning their fingerprints along with their milk and bread.

The supermarket tested a self-scanning system that uses biometric technology with a small group of employees and customers for about six weeks and made the self-checkout system available to all customers late last month.

"We view this as a wonderful opportunity to save our customers time while dramatically reducing the staff needed to run a supermarket," said Monty Hamilton, assistant to the chairman for International Automated Systems, American Fork, Utah. IAS developed the technology and also operates the single-store supermarket, which has been open for about three months.

Customers are issued a magnetic stripe card that is used to store the customer's fingerprint image as well as name and checking account information.

When customers finish scanning their orders, they scan their fingerprint using a small device connected to the point-of-sale system. If the fingerprint scanned at the point of sale matches the fingerprint on the card, the amount of the order is charged to the customer's checking account.

Currently, consumers may sign up for the U-Check card at the Salem store in an application process that requires approximately five to seven minutes.

Neldon Johnson, president and chief executive officer of IAS, said the technology has been well-received among "charter" consumers. "While curiosity may bring people in, convenience and noteworthy savings without the typical bulk-purchase requirements are creating repeat customers," Johnson noted.

According to Hamilton, the 25,000-square-foot U-Check supermarket operates with approximately 18 people, including two cashiers. According to industry observers, a supermarket of that size would typically employ 50 to 60 people. "One of the biggest jobs a manager has is finding enough employees to provide the right level of customer service. This self-service system dramatically cuts the cost of running a supermarket," he said.

With some self-checkout systems, the customer is required to present payment to a cashier, regardless of whether the payment is cash, check, debit or credit card. With the system being used at U-Check, customers using the magnetic stripe card to process payment directly from their checking account do not need to go to a cashier. However, customers using other methods of payment must go to a cashier.

The two cashiers can communicate with customers via a microphone if the customers have questions or are having difficulty processing their orders.

While U-Check customers can use other methods of payment, a 5% discount is given those who process their orders using the magnetic strip card containing their fingerprints and checking-account data.

"The typical savings by using the U-Check card is about 65 cents a transaction," said Hamilton. "We have 70% to 80% of our customer base using the card, and what we find interesting is that the orders processed on the card are 10% to 20% larger than orders processed with other methods of payment," he said.

To keep shrink to a minimum, the customer's shopping cart is weighed before the checkout process is completed and again before the customer can exit. This is done to check that nothing has been added to the cart after the payment has been processed.

Hamilton told SN that several large retail chains have expressed interest in the technology. In addition, IAS plans to franchise the U-Check supermarket concept.