Let their finger do the talking

July 2012 Integrated Solutions, Retail (Industry)

Visualise this. You walk into a men’s store, approach the ‘personal shopper’ stand and drop your finger onto the spot designated. A personalised greeting appears on the monitor. “Good day, Mr. Brigham. The last time you visited, you bought a blue pinstripe suit. To thank you for your business, for any tie you buy today, pick another at the same price or less for free. Your discount will appear at checkout.”

Visualise this. You walk into a men’s store, approach the ‘personal shopper’ stand and drop your finger onto the spot designated. A personalised greeting appears on the monitor. “Good day, Mr. Brigham. The last time you visited, you bought a blue pinstripe suit. To thank you for your business, for any tie you buy today, pick another at the same price or less for free. Your discount will appear at checkout.”

With a biometrically enabled loyalty system like that, past customers will want to return to the store repeatedly.

Today, retail decision-makers can be less concerned about whether technology works – with the introduction of multispectral imaging, even biometrics have become reliable – and more interested in how access control can be integrated into identity management systems for goals beyond the simple transaction of opening a door.

Today, they can use biometrics in ‘customer facing’ applications like loyalty programmes. With the advent of the latest technologies, biometrics have been successfully deployed at major theme parks and bank ATMs. Why should the retail industry not take advantage of new biometrics technologies as well?

But, that is not all! Can workflow be streamlined by a single authentication solution across an organisation? Can user authentication be tied into safety systems, as required by regulators or insurance providers? Can business patrons’ experience be enhanced by expanding the touch points that know who they are? The answers to these questions are being asked today by retail CIOs who are demanding seamless and holistic solutions to IAM challenges that revolve around the question, ‘Who?’

The question of who

The challenge has always been how to establish the ‘who’ in transactions. Who is accessing the warehouse? Who is punching the time clock? Who is the customer in front of me? The question is always, ‘Who?’

Until now, our response as an industry to this question of ‘who’ has been to use the best available tools to approximate identity. Thus, a person can present a credential – something they know like a password or something they have like a swipe card – to ‘authenticate’ their identity. However, credentials alone simply cannot substantiate identity.

CIOs understand that others can know the password – it may have been shared, found or observed. Cards and tokens show what somebody has, but possession alone does not assure identity: somebody else could have that card or token, via sharing or theft. Thus, while access and authorisation has always been granted to individual people, knowing a password or having a key is only superficially related to the authorised person, and neither can establish who. Only a biometric can do that.

Here is an example of why it is important to know who. Today, NFC-enabled smartphones are starting to get a lot of press. It is now possible to replace cards with virtual credentials on a smartphone. These credentials, when linked to one’s unique identity, provide an easier, simpler way to pay for merchandise. The customer just taps her smartphone to the cash register. NFC-enabled smartphones could also provide better access to buildings, data or devices.

Nonetheless, virtual credentials still only verify that somebody has the phone. Add a biometric to the phone and you know that the person using the phone is the person who is authorised to use it.

Instead, retailers could implement finger biometrics and actually understand who. After all, not all customers fit the phone-carrying demographic. And what about customers who forget to bring their cellphone? They did not leave their finger at home! Let us look at some retail applications and how biometrics can help take retailers to the next level.

Fast ROI

Increasingly, retailers are discovering that time and attendance technologies, such as barcode ID cards, proximity cards, PINs and manual punch clocks, are inexpensive short-term fixes but, in the long run, they can be exploited and are susceptible to fraud, rendering them a poor long-term solution. Biometrics solves this problem by eliminating sharing, swapping, stealing and loss of PINs, passwords and ID cards.

Every retailer knows that they are working in a very small margin industry. Although most employ some type of workforce management system, that initiative is really no better than the data entered into it. And, much of that data is bad because employees ‘buddy-punch’, clocking their friends in and out of work.

On average, 19% of employees admit that they have buddy punched at least once in the past year and 74% of all companies report that they have experienced a loss from buddy punching. It is bad enough that the store misses out on the expected labour of the missing employee. However, according to the American Payroll Association, this practice costs companies between 5 to 7% in payroll costs.

Therefore, would it not be nice to verify employees with the touch of a finger…to know that your employee is actually there, not just his swipe card? A biometric ensures that employees earn a day’s pay only when they are present to do a day’s work. However, a biometrically enabled terminal is more than a simple time clock. It transmits the employee’s In and Out transactions to a company’s time/attendance/payroll software. It can also display messages specific to an employee. Shift schedules can be communicated and vacation balances retrieved – all enhancing employee communication. Multiple units can be networked into a central time and attendance recordkeeping system. Interface software can be tailored to meet multiple recordkeeping needs, including programmable data management keys that collect specific data when employees are verified.

Simple single-clock or multiple-unit systems can be connected at a variety of sites over a full range of network topographies. Supervisors can enhance productivity by performing a variety of functions immediately at the terminal. They might override user restrictions and input missed punches, planned vacations, sick time and other information. This biometrically protected supervisor mode lessens the need for computer edits while audit trails for use of those functions ensure security.

For small retailers, the time and attendance application is the main incentive for installing biometrics. But, unlike the box store, which might place biometric terminals at employee doors, how does the ice cream parlour collect this data?

Who Is operating the POS terminal?

Small retailers have their employees clock in and out at the cash register, the POS terminal. How else could that biometric interface be used? What about opening the register? A finger is certainly faster than a PIN.

Plus, as a by-product of having employees use their fingers to open the register, the owner now has a record of exactly who was opening it during the window of time some money was found missing – not simply a record of what PIN was keyed in. The owner has irrefutable evidence of precisely which employees were in the drawer. As a result, the owner knows who to talk to when there is shrinkage. Those whose fingers were not used at that time will not be bothered.

Of course, the same system can also be used in the big box stores where transactions, returns and other potentials for shrinkage run in the hundreds to thousands of opportunities per day.

Who did what?

In auto repair and servicing, it becomes very important to discern who fixed the car to keep employees responsible for what they have done. That is why such organisations, retail in manner, have work orders that detail what was done and by who, which is typically noted into the system with a PIN. Of course, if Joe is not really feeling up to it that day, he just enters Charley’s PIN. And, when Mrs. Jacobs’ car stalls on the freeway six miles from the shop, Joe does not hear a word about it. If Joe had to sign on with a finger, Joe might be a little more careful.

Creating an enterprise single sign-on system

After considering these examples, all in use today, ask yourself: Would a retail organisation like to have a system that offers quick, easy access for authorised users to enter specific locales or use particular data sets and which can also enforce and document compliance with its policies and procedures? Of course, it would. But in today’s complex world, authorised users are sometimes forced to carry different forms of credentials for various applications and remember multiple passwords.

An enterprise single sign-on (ESSO) system, used in concert with the latest generation of biometric sensors, provides a better, more convenient and secure solution. Retailers realise that security is a must but security solutions cannot interfere with employees doing their jobs effectively, efficiently and safely. With a biometrically enabled ESSO, one simple enrolment allows multiple uses across the whole enterprise, from entering the employee-only area to going into the warehouse, even using the POS system or entering time and attendance data. This holistic view of enterprise security is vital and provides an integrated identity management system that is much more reliable and cost-effective as it eliminates the problems of having multiple identities tracked over an ever-increasing number of disconnected access points.

A biometrically enabled ESSO eliminates end-user frustrations with multiple passwords and lost tokens. Investing in an ESSO with a biometric completes a retailer’s enterprise security by merging all authentication needs to a single finger and providing an irrefutable audit trail.

Multispectral imaging

For many years, retailers and other organisations have shied away from realising the lower cost and smaller footprint of fingerprint biometrics because, all too often, legitimate, authorised employees were rejected by the fingerprint scanning system. The optical and electronic technologies used by conventional fingerprint scanners had error rates from 5-20% depending on the environment. With 50 employees, sometimes that was manageable. With the numbers of people employed in retail chains, those error rates are just too high.

The core problem is that conventional technologies rely on unobstructed and complete contact between the fingerprint and the sensor, a condition that is elusive in the real world, a world that is wet, dry, or dirty and where users are not all young office workers with great skin who are experienced at using biometrics.

To read a fingerprint, these units, whether optical or electrically based, needed the employee to lay a fingertip directly on the platen. They needed the fingerprint ridges to literally make good electrical or optical contact with the device. In addition, they also needed the valleys between the fingerprints to fill with air. Dirt, water or any other contaminant could tend to fill those valleys or not allow the ridges make good contact with the platen. Whichever technology used, the result was bad images which leads to bad reads.

A newer technology, based on using multiple wavelengths of light and advanced polarisation techniques, however, can extract unique fingerprint characteristics from both the surface and subsurface of the skin. It unleashes the subsurface fingerprint to provide results that are more consistent, more inclusive and more tamper resistant. Dirty, calloused, wet or dry, the fingerprint is still readable with multispectral imaging. That is because, if the outer fingerprint is unreadable, the subsurface fingerprint can still be read.

Biometrics gives back what could possibly be the most important asset that an employee can offer in a retail environment – increased productivity. Productivity growth is important to a retailer because it means that it can meet its growing obligations and still stay competitive, or even improve its competitiveness within its vertical market.

The future of biometric deployments in retail

Adopting biometric technology in a retail environment eliminates the need for logon IDs and passwords. An employee cannot borrow a swipe card or a PIN to perform a transaction or override what is above their permission level because a manager must be physically present to offer their biometric authentication for the authorisation to be completed. But, that is just the beginning.

There is a burgeoning desire by retailers to introduce the afore-mentioned ‘personal experience’ to their customers. To launch a whole new mode of customer service, they want to deploy customer-facing technologies as overviewed in the men’s store example. What is simpler than using a finger tap to access a customer’s loyalty account and provide payment?

Yes, installing and implementing biometrics in their businesses will give retailers added peace of mind – they will rest easier knowing that the data they depend on is safe and secure. As biometric technology has improved and more POS products have become available, biometrics have become affordable to retailers of all sizes.

For more information contact Brand New Technologies, +27 (0)11 450 3088, danica@bntech.co.za

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