Amazon's palm-reading payment tech is coming to Panera Bread

Amazon may be closing a number of its high-tech physical retail stores in recent days, but some of the technology it developed for those stores is finding a new home. The online retailer said today that Panera will now become the first restaurant to deploy Amazon's palm reading payment and loyalty system, known as Amazon One, in its own stores, allowing its customers to both pay as well as access the chain's loyalty program.

Currently, Panera has the Amazon One system deployed at two cafes in its hometown of St. Louis, but Amazon says the system will expand to other locations in the months ahead. Panera tells us this includes additional cafes in the St. Louis area and other Seattle markets to start. By year-end, it expects to have 10 to 20 locations live with the technology.

Leveraging computer vision technology, the Amazon One system creates a unique palm print for each customer, which Amazon then associates with a credit card the customer inserts in the sign-up kiosk upon initial setup. If the customer has an Amazon account, that is also associated with their Amazon One profile information. The palm print images are encrypted and secured in the cloud when the palm signatures are created.

Image Credits: Panera (Amazon One reader)

When it first launched in 2020, Amazon had argued that palm prints were a more private form of biometric authentication compared with other methods, because you wouldn't be able to determine someone's identity from their palm print image alone. Of course, Amazon wasn't only storing palm images; it was also matching them to customer accounts and credit cards, building a database of customer info combined with biometrics. This system could then be used to introduce highly personalized offers and recommendations over time.

The biometric payment system itself was introduced during the pandemic, taking advantage of the increased interest in contactless payments. However, there was some concern the system wouldn't make sense in the pandemic era, as some customers wore gloves when shopping, which would have to be removed, while others may have accidentally pressed their hands to the palm reader by mistake, spreading germs.

But the system continued to roll out in 2021 to a number of Amazon's own retail locations, including its Amazon Go convenience stores, Amazon Go Grocery, Amazon Books, and Amazon 4-star stores. Soon thereafter, U.S. lawmakers reached out to Amazon to determine what its plans were for such a large-scale collection of palm print biometric data.

Last year, Amazon expanded Amazon One to dozens of Whole Foods locations. The system has also been deployed at various stadiums and airports.

Image Credits: Panera (Amazon One reader)

Now, Panera will adopt the system in its stores to enable fast payments and other features. Customers who link their MyPanera account to Amazon One will also receive meal recommendations based on prior orders and preferences. Meanwhile, Panera employees will be able to greet guests by name, communicate about the customer's available rewards, reorder the customer's favorites, or take a new order. When the ordering is complete, the customer would scan their palm a second time to pay.

Alongside this news, Amazon is also announcing two new features for Amazon One, including loyalty linking and online pre-enrollment. For the former, if the customer was already enrolled in Amazon One at another location, they could now just link their MyPanera account to their Amazon One ID either online or in the store to use the system at that location, too. Plus, first-time customers can now pre-enroll online to start the process before they get to the store. They would then be able to complete the enrollment by scanning their palm at the store and using the code they received during pre-enrollment.

Image Credits: Panera (Amazon One reader)

"At Panera, we’ve always grounded ourselves in the warmth we share for our guests and our associates, and we look at technology to find ways to make that experience better," said Panera SVP and Chief Digital Officer, George Hanson, in an email to TechCrunch. "So for us, this is a way to make the guest journey even more efficient and personalized, through a contactless, fast, and secure process so that they can enjoy what they love about Panera quicker and easier. Partnering with Amazon brings a scale and network that is attractive to us," he noted.

Hanson added the company would love to roll out the technology to all its 2,113 stores, but said it's still in the early phase of such an expansion.

There is likely more to this deal than simply wanting to be tech-forward and convenient, however. With the combination of payment tech, loyalty and unique identifiers, Panera could more easily track unique customers and learn their preferences, habits and interests to better target them with offers and recommendations. That's data it doesn't have when a customer chooses to pay with a more privacy-focused payment technology like Apple Pay, for instance.

Update, 3/29/23

Though not a part of the original announcement, it seems Amazon and Parera's broader partnership extends further than Amazon One.

The companies announced on Wed. March 29 a new feature that allows MyPanera members to use Amazon Alexa on Echo Show devices to order their favorite items from the restaurant via either voice or touch for either pickup or delivery.