Panera Bread wants to read palms for loyalty and payment

The bakery-cafe chain will be the first restaurant concept to test use of Amazon One contactless palm readers, designed to speed the in-store experience for MyPanera members.
Panera Bread Amazon One
The Amazon One test will be piloted first in two St. Louis-area Panera locations./Photo courtesy of Panera Bread.

Panera Bread on Wednesday may be the first restaurant chain to give loyalty members the option to sign in and pay with a simple sweep of their hand.

The fast-casual chain is launching a pilot of the Amazon One payment system, now in place at some Whole Foods and Amazon retail stores, as well as cafes on the tech giant’s campuses. The contactless technology allows users to link both their loyalty and credit card information to the unique signature of the palm of their hand.

Starting Wednesday, the system will be tested at two Panera bakery-café units in the St. Louis, Mo., market, and over several months it will be expanded to include 10 to 20 more locations, including some Panera locations in Seattle, where Amazon is based.

George Hanson, Panera’s chief digital officer, said the move is designed to streamline the dine-in experience for both guests and associates.

“It’s as easy as placing your hand over the Amazon One device. You don’t have to touch it. There are no screens,” he said. “It’s super simple.”

To start, the palm reading devices will only be available at the main point of sale, but Hanson said there’s no reason why the technology couldn’t be made available at kiosks if the company decides to roll it out.

The goal is to eliminate the friction MyPanera members might experience when ordering in stores. Loyalty members first have to sign in with their card or phone number to be recognized, and it can be cumbersome at times, Hanson said.

“You might have to fumble for your card, or you might not remember the phone number your membership is associated with,” said Hanson.

Using the Amazon One system will be optional and will require no extra cost. And MyPanera members who are already using Amazon One at Whole Foods or Amazon Fresh, for example, need only to link their Panera accounts to their palm signature.

“We think the guest will save time and it will allow their ordering experience to be faster and more personalized,” he said.

Other restaurant chains have experimented with using facial recognition to speed the payment process, but Hanson said Panera liked the idea of using a palm signature because it’s a very deliberate motion of hovering your hand over a reader.

It’s also a more private way to be recognized by a body part.

One’s palm has a unique signature, like a fingerprint. But, unlike your face, an image of your palm would not include any personally identifiable information—at least not without a reader device, Hanson said. A fingerprint reader requires a touch, but palm-reading devices are contactless.

“We think the big story here is the combination of payment and loyalty driving personalization, and driving faster experience in the café,” Hanson said. “And with a partner like Amazon, we think this has massive scale.”

It’s not clear whether payment-by-palm is catching on in the retail world.

The Amazon One payment system is in use at hundreds of retail locations—though mostly those owned by Amazon—like some Whole Foods stores, as well as Amazon Fresh and Amazon Go. It’s also in use in some airports, sports stadiums (T-Mobile Park, Climate Pledge Arena, Texas A&M’s Kyle Field) and entertainment venues (Hollywood Casino in Detroit).

Amazon officials, however, declined to share information on how many consumers use the system or have linked their credit card information to their palms.

Use of biometrics has not been without hiccups, and some have raised concerns about data privacy.

Last week, for example, Amazon was reportedly sued by an Amazon Go shopper who claimed the store failed to properly inform customers that their biometric information was being collected. New York law requires retailers to post signs indicating that biometrics are being scanned. Amazon Go is a “just walk out” store model with no checkout, and guests can choose to use the Amazon One palm scan to enter the store, rather than scanning a code from the app.

Hanson said there is always an adoption curve for new technologies.

But adoption grows when users see the value, and the Panera loyalty option gives consumers more reason to try it, he said.

Panera’s loyalty program has about 52 million members. About half of all Panera transactions come from those loyalty members. And MyPanera members spend roughly four times what nonmembers spend on average.

The chain long pioneered new technologies to improve the guest experience, and those investments are paying off in loyalty.

Last year, the chain tweaked its loyalty program to give members more choices of rewards, for example, a move that Hanson said has been wildly popular.

The chain was also among the first to offer a subscription program to loyalty members, first offering unlimited coffee and later expanding that to include all beverages with the Unlimited Sip Club.

Hanson declined to say how many subscribers the Sip Club has, but he said, “I can tell you the program is extremely successful, and we continue to grow it.”

But after months of focusing on improving digital channel experiences, the Amazon One test shifts the focus back to the in-store experience for loyalty members, he noted.

Use of Amazon One will go through Panera’s rigorous testing process, and will likely be expanded to more units before consideration of a national rollout, Hanson said.

“But we’re very excited about this,” he added.

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