Fashion, Biometrics Go Hand In Hand


A biometric ID system gives Holt Renfrew associates higher accountability and commissions.

Headquartered in Toronto, Holt Renfrew is a specialty apparel and accessories retailer that operates nine mainline and two off-price stores. About five years ago, management identified a need to address concerns about access to its Datavantage POS system. Store associates had been utilizing user identification numbers to sign on to the terminals, but this method was no longer working effectively, says Anne Hodkin, director of IT. Hodkin and other members of Holt Renfrew’s IT and loss prevention teams considered replacing the user ID numbers with smart cards, but eventually opted to shop for a biometric ID system. “We went with biometrics for a number of reasons,” Hodkin notes. “These included ease of use, as well as the fact that the system [components] would be almost invisible at the tills — which is very important for a high-fashion retailer — and would occupy minimal space at the POS.” Additionally, Holt Renfrew wanted a technology that could eventually be enlisted for time and attendance management and, as such, would interface with its Workbrain time and attendance system. The winning solution was the U.are.U 4000B USB fingerprint readers and the FingerPrint Recognition Engine, both from DigitalPersona, Inc.

Not A Fingerprint

Holt Renfrew tested the employee authentication portion of the solution in one store in early 2001, rolling it out chainwide beginning in August of that year and wrapping up the deployment by the following April. The time and attendance piece was introduced beginning in mid-2004.

The technology is currently in use at 550 POS stations in eight Canadian cities. When staff members join Holt Renfrew, they submit a scan of several points on three different finger pads. No actual fingerprints are held in the system; rather, the biometric software extracts unique characteristics of the fingerprints and then discards the actual images. The characteristics are stored in encrypted templates containing binary number strings that can’t be reverse-engineered to produce images of original fingerprints.

“We make it clear that we don’t hold fingerprints, but use algorithms and, as a result, are protecting employees’ privacy,” Hodkin states. In fact, to make associates comfortable with the technology, it produced a short video presentation explaining the system. Filmed during the pilot phase, the presentation was shown to all employees as the rollout progressed.

Each time a transaction or clock in and out is completed, sales associates key in their employee numbers on a touch screen or keyboard. They place two fingers from one hand and one finger from the other hand on the scanner. Finger scans are compared with encrypted templates residing in the system; if these match, access to the POS system is granted. Templates are removed from the system as soon as an associate leaves the company.

Ease, Integrity A Plus

Hodkin notes that while Holt Renfrew’s operations team predicted there would be some employee concerns about using biometric technology, such issues never arose. “I was expecting to field a lot of questions, but as it turns out, [staff] say they love the ease and integrity the solution provides,” she explains.

One major benefit of the system, Hodkin continues, is that it allows Holt Renfrew associates to be accountable only for their own actions. “There are no passwords to breach, so in the rare instance when an odd situation occurs, only that person can be held responsible,” she states. Similarly, buddy punching is eliminated.

Additionally, Hodkin notes, using a biometric-based solution ensures that associates receive credit for each sale they make; every transaction and merchandise return is posted to an individual employee’s account via the biometric identifier. Hodkin adds that being able to identify exactly which associate assisted with a given transaction, and when, facilitates audits and helps keep staffing levels appropriate.      

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Integrated Solutions For Retailers, December 2006
Written by: Julie Ritzer Ross