Customers Pay With Fingerprints at Chicago Gas Station

Chicago drivers have a new way to pay for gasoline: with their fingertips.

Ten Shell gas stations in the Windy City are testing biometric systems that let consumers walk up to the pump, scan their fingertips on a device and fill up their vehicles.

The systems, also installed at Shell convenience stores, are directly linked to customers' checking or credit-card accounts for payment.

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"When we talk to customers, they're always looking for ways to make buying gasoline quicker and easier, and always looking for ways to make their transactions faster and more secure," said Chris Suess, Shell's manager of global refueling innovations. "They don't want to carry more cards, kits and keychains, and they want it to be free."

Customers will be able to initially scan their fingerprints at a kiosk inside the gas station and can link payment information either at the store or online.

The biometric devices, made by a San Francisco-based company called Pay By Touch, are one part of a technological trifecta Shell is rolling out at its gas stations.

Shell has partnered with Fuelcast Media International LLC to offer local news, weather and sports on digital screens at the pump. Fuelcast pays Shell for the ability to display advertisements along with the content from local NBC stations. The monitors are installed at 300 Shell stations across the U.S.

In addition, gas station attendants are testing hand-held wireless devices that allow full-service customers to pay electronically at their car window.

The high-tech push is a multi-prong initiative to build customer loyalty, stay ahead of competitors on the technological curve and gain revenue from the Fuelcast deal. Shell said it is the first brand to launch the biometric systems, though expansion hinges on whether its customers take to the futuristic finger scanners.

Brandon Wright, spokesman for the Petroleum Marketers Association of America, said he had not heard of any gas stations using biometrics, but wouldn't be surprised if they were featured on the "next generation of pumps" as consumers demand quick, convenient payment methods.

Shell, which is part of Royal Dutch Shell PLC, has not yet promoted the systems, so uptake has been minimal, Suess said.

Sunflower Market, a Chicago grocery store, also has Pay By Touch systems installed. About 2 percent of its customers signed up for the payment option, said the store's manager, Debbie Britton.

"I think it scares people," Britton said. "They're more confused about the whole system. Some of them say, 'Well, now the FBI can find me.'"

However, biometrics are slowly creeping into the retail sphere as consumers prefer quicker and more secure methods of payment.

SuperValu, one of the nation's largest grocers, has Pay By Touch systems in several of its store brands, including Albertsons, Cub Foods, Jewel-Osco, bigg's and Farm Fresh.

The International Biometric Group projects the industry's revenue will rise to $7.41 billion in 2012 from $3.01 billion this year.

"It's growing in leaps and bounds," said John Siedlarz, chief executive of the National Biometric Security project.

He noted that retailers have been slower to adopt biometrics than security firms and government agencies, because of the expense.

"If you have to put in 10 million points of sale and it's $50 a person," costs are prohibitive, he said.

Shoppers who consider signing up for such systems should find out whether their information is shared with affiliates or third parties, said Beth Givens, director of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse.

Shell said it will not share personal information of Pay By Touch customers with third parties, and it still offers traditional forms of payment for those uncomfortable with the system.

Shell officials note that the system is less susceptible to identity theft since it's impossible to duplicate or steal a fingerprint. Alternatives like cash, credit cards and keychain payment cards with radio-frequency identification chips can be stolen and used by others.

Industrywide adoption depends on whether gas station owners will be willing to pay for new pumps, which can cost "thousands to tens of thousands of dollars," the PMAA's Wright said.

Shell is uncertain of how much the high-tech initiative will ultimately cost or how the devices will be received, although the pilot program is not a major expense, Suess said.

Nonetheless, the Houston-based company is betting that making its brand distinct from other gas stations will make customers come back.

"We'd like to see an increase in customer loyalty because we're the only gas retailer offering this service," Suess said.