A curious thing happened several years ago at the Thriftway in West Seattle. Japanese businessmen began stopping by for tours, 20 to 30...

NEW YORK — A curious thing happened several years ago at the Thriftway in West Seattle. Japanese businessmen began stopping by for tours, 20 to 30 to a bus, always bearing gifts.

“It is quite a thing to see,” says assistant store manager Steve Kamphaus.

What lured them there apart from the Brie en brioche? The small, upscale grocer had begun offering customers the option to pay by fingerprint.

Biometrics — the concept of measuring the movement or dynamics of the body to authenticate someone — receives its most sexy treatment in Hollywood movies. Scientists receive access to super-secret labs by having their retina or hand scanned (see: Angels, Charlie).

In the real world, you can use it to buy tomatoes without swiping a credit card.

Pay By Touch, a biometric authentication, payment and personalized marketing company based in San Francisco, is behind this vision of life sans wallet.

It demonstrated the payment system this week at the National Retail Federation’s 96th Annual Convention & Expo in New York.

Customers sign up by storing their financial and store membership-savings cards information online, creating a digital wallet, so to speak.

They then have their index fingers scanned once at a participating store.

Paying at checkout becomes as easy as pressing their index finger on a small scanner connected to the credit-card transaction machine, then punching in their telephone number.

The number isn’t a password, but rather helps the computer search for the customer’s digital wallet.

“There’s nothing for you to lose or someone else to take,” says Caroline McNally, Pay By Touch’s brand strategy manager.

The payment system has benefits beyond getting customers through the line more quickly, although efficiency alone is important to the bottom line.

Starbucks lost sales in July because it couldn’t get customers through the line fast enough during peak morning hours.

Credit-card transaction fees are one of the largest costs for grocers, McNally says. “Retailers have some ability to influence your payment choice.” That can be debit, credit or e-check.

If you wonder whether consumers are ready for the sci-fi payment method, consider Pay By Touch’s first account: a Piggly Wiggly franchise in South Carolina. The grocery chain offers the payment method in 100 stores.

More than 3.5 million people have Pay by Touch accounts, available in 3,000 retail locations in 44 states, plus the U.K. and Asia.

While Seattle boasts but one location, grocers including Albertsons’ and Whole Foods have begun testing the service in other parts of the country. If successful, they may one day be available here.

For now, the West Seattle grocer held a new car drawing in December as an incentive to have its customers sign up for Pay By Touch using e-check, a form of payment that draws funds straight from a customer’s checking account.

“It’s a benefit to the customer and it’s a benefit to us,” Kamphaus says.

At the very least, it’s worth the tour.

— Monica Soto Ouchi

Tidbits

Starbucks bought 294 million pounds of coffee in fiscal 2006, which represents 2.1 percent of the world’s production.

It paid an average of $1.42 a pound, or $417.5 million, for that coffee, up from $1.28 a pound and $399.4 million the year before.

To get better quality coffee, the Seattle-based company paid significantly more than the commodity market price for coffee.

Starbucks also doubled the amount of coffee it bought through its C.A.F.E. Practices program, which ensures that coffee farmers meet certain social and environmental standards and that they, rather than exporters, receive most of the payment.

Last year, 53 percent of the coffee Starbucks bought was certified through that program. — MA

Sur La Table has named Jack Schwefel as president, reporting to Chief Executive Kathy Tierney. Schwefel joined the Seattle-based culinary retailer in May as vice president of its 57 retail stores from Manhattan to Washington, D.C., to Carlsbad, Calif. He replaces Renee Behnke, who retired as president in 2004. — MA

Pioneer Organics recently quadrupled its space, moving from a 5,000-square-foot facility in Ballard to a 22,500-square-foot space in Georgetown. Founded in 1997, the company delivers organic food to customers’ doors in Seattle, Portland and surrounding areas. This year, owner Ronny Bell plans to expand into Vashon Island, Olympia and Salem, Ore. — MA

Retail Report appears Fridays. Melissa Allison covers the food and beverage industry. She can be reached at 206-464-3312 or mallison@seattletimes.com. Monica Soto Ouchi covers goods, services and online retail. She can be reached at 206-515-5632 or msoto@seattletimes.com.