age recognition checkout

New checkout technology will include a camera that estimates your age. Based on a scan of your face, it will decide to either accept or deny the sale of the item, without any need for staff intervention

Ah, self-checkouts. There’s no doubting the overall concept. After all, there are few things more satisfying than bypassing the dawdling National Lottery customer. In the era of the quick and frequent supermarket dash, they should be a godsend. Except it’s never that simple, is it?

There’s the standard ‘unexpected item in the bagging area’, generally hated for its ability to cast doubts over your morality in loudspeaker fashion. Even if you do manage to get your bagging area in sync, there’s always the item that won’t scan, or the bakery product that is impossible to find on the system. Then there are the sighs of exasperation that come with a proof of age check. Even a pack of aspirin can herald the dreaded sound of ‘staff authorisation required’.

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Staff age checks can be a sobering experience at the best of times (especially when you are crushingly waved through without a second glance). But at self-checkouts, you find yourself gurning at the staff member on the till who is still serving the painstakingly slow National Lottery customer, in the hope they will authorise you to walk off into the sunset with your now much-needed aspirin/bottle of vodka.

As world problems go, it’s hardly a major one. But as research suggests one in two customers need help with self-service checkouts, it’s clearly an experience that could be improved. To be fair, retailers are trying. Sainsbury’s has made its self-checkouts notably less shouty over the past year and Poundland has even gone down the comedy route with Elvis-themed instructions such as “quantity needed, hound dog”.

The latest bid to improve self-checkouts is automated age recognition. The soon-to-arrive technology has been created by NCR, whose clients include Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury’s and Marks & Spencer. Essentially, the new checkout technology will include a camera that estimates your age. Based on a scan of your face, it will decide to either accept or deny the sale of the item, without any need for staff intervention. If you’re particularly keen on skipping the queue, you can even register your ID with a smartphone app that will give you instant authentication at the till.

Sounds pretty whizzy, eh? Like self-checkouts themselves, it’s a great idea in theory. The question is how it will work in practice. Registering an ID document is easy enough, but in other cases, how exactly will the machine decide your age? Will it measure your face on a cragginess scale of one to 10? Does it have some kind of a wrinkle detector? A device that detects dark circles under eyes? (In which case, it may be advisable to avoid the machine on days when you actually need the aspirin.)

There may be an element of consumer wariness about the technology. It somehow seems more insulting when a machine says you are excluded from the ‘Think 25’ criteria. (At least with a staff member, you can tell yourself that they are badly in need of an eye exam, or too young to know better.)

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Crucially, though, consumers will need convincing that it actually works. Any errors will only lead to more frustration and the eventual intervention of a staff member, anyway. According to NCR, the age verification is generally set at 10 years above the legal limit, raising the question of what happens to those deemed younger.

So if it works, bring on the automated age recognition. Otherwise, it may just be a long way of arriving at those same dreaded three words: ‘staff authorisation required’.