Aldi recently opened the doors of its checkout-free supermarket, ‘Shop&Go,’ partnering with retail technology company Yoti to make the most of its pioneering age-recognition technology.
Yoti, which has previously been used by the NHS to verify identity, claims to have developed the world’s most accurate age-estimation tech. It says its AI-powered algorithm can check and estimate the age of faces with an average accuracy of 2.2 years – or 1.5 years among those ages between 16 and 20.
But is that really enough to allow customers to buy alcohol and other age-restricted items without ever being verified by a human? The new ‘Shop&Go’ store – which opened in Greenwich earlier this week – allows customers to shop completely autonomously, without visiting a checkout or till point at all.
Once shoppers have signed into the Shop&Go app they are free to bag their goods and walk out, as hundreds of cameras track which items have been taken from the shelves. Receipts are sent directly to shoppers smartphones, allowing them to pay using a variety of methods.
The technology has been seen more frequently over the past 12 months after Amazon got the ball rolling with its Amazon Fresh grocery stores in the UK, with its own ‘Just Walk Out‘ technology similar to Aldi’s.
However, a customer visiting the Amazon Fresh store must still have their age verified manually by a store worker in order to purchase an age-restricted item such as a bottle of wine as – despite being the leader in the autonomous supermarket space – Amazon Fresh hasn’t yet worked out a way to expedite the process using technology.
However, a potential solution to this could be on the way after leading supermarkets Tesco, Asda, Aldi, Co-op and Morrisons have agreed to take part in a facial age-estimation technology trial which aims to accurately guess a customer’s age.
The trial is part of a government “regulatory sandbox” which will see whether the technology is able to facilitate alcohol sales faster and more efficiently than manual checks – which can of course take even longer for till staff under the age of 18, who are not legally allowed to verify an age-restricted transaction.
The government also hopes this will lead to a drop in the increasing – and worrying – issue of staff abuse.
Challenge 25 was first brought into action in 2009 as the natural successor to the successful Challenge 21 scheme. The scheme asks anybody purchasing an age-restricted item to present a form of identification to prove they legally allowed do so, if they look younger than 25.
While the Challenge 25 scheme has been successful in stopping the widespread sale of age-restricted products in the UK, it has also caused a number of problems; mainly for retail workers.
Customers often take offence when they are asked to present a form of ID, and – according to the British Retail Consortium (BRC) – challenging young people for ID is one of the most common reasons for abuse of staff in the retail sector.
Not only does this cause staff distress but, according to retail trade union Usdaw, it has also left growing numbers worried about the potential possibility of facing criminal prosecution or disciplinary action from their workplace if they accidentally sell an age-restricted product to someone who is underage.
“Challenge 25 presents a buffer that supports retailers, but meeting C25 is incredibly difficult to tackle face on – there’s also online sales to contend with,” Yoti chief business officer John Abbott told Charged.
“Staff often face abusive customers, both physical and verbal attacks, when carrying out age checks on age restricted products and we’re looking to help reduce that pressure.
“Age verification also accounts for up to 50% of staff interventions at the self-checkout and we believe that moving forwards, digital assurance will make age checks simpler, safer and more accurate for retailers, staff and customers alike.”
If the trial is successful, Yoti’s technology could completely change the way age-restricted products are sold by retailers, saving time and dramatically cutting down on the amount of abuse that retail workers face when asking for ID.
The tech uses AI and machine learning to analyse human faces to verify their age. However, it differs from facial recognition technology as it cannot link a face to an identity, eliminating the privacy concerns that naturally come with the use of any biometric technology.
“Our facial age estimation technology is more accurate than the human eye and works fairly for everyone – their age, skin tone or gender isn’t an issue. It also never gets tired towards the end of a long shift and doesn’t rely on ID documents that are easy to lose, expensive to replace and increasingly easy to fake with modern technology,” Abbott added.
If a customer gives the software permission, the checkout will take a photo of their face before the AI system determines their approximate age. The image is automatically deleted, meaning no face is ever kept on record.
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Yoti says that the only data that is shared with the retailer is the age check and that no human will ever see the photo snapped by the checkout.
If the tech believes that a customer looks younger than the required age, they can share their date of birth anonymously via the Yoti app or by scanning the QR code that is displayed on the terminal’s screen. If a customer does not give the machine permission, then a shop worker must verify the person’s age.
“If a customer fails the age estimation check, our free ID app provides retailers with age verification and confidence that people are who they say they are. No shop assistant can confidently know the validity of drivers licences, passports and national ID documents from over 195 countries – but that’s the challenge they face today,” Abbott explained.
While some may still be wary about a machine having their photograph on the system temporarily and refuse to use the tech, many shoppers do not enjoy waiting in queues for a shop worker to step in. It seems that age-verification technology could offer a solution to this problem, which has been a thorny issue for both customers and retailers for some time.
“Challenge 25 will continue to be relevant, but the introduction of digital ID will be another way to help retailers to step up their efforts in meeting proof of age requirements,” he continued.
“It can optimise customer flows, take the bulk of the strain from retail staff and allow them to focus on higher value services and priority scenarios. So it is not a question of whether Age estimation replaces Challenge 25, but more about how it improves, optimises and transforms Challenge 25 into a more modern solution to an age old problem.”