Aldi self-checkouts Glascote Tamworth

Aldi self-checkouts in Tamworth, Staffordshire. The discounter is using a self-checkout in Cambridge to test digital age verification technology

Tesco, Asda, Morrisons, Aldi and Co-op are taking part in Home Office trials of digital age verification technology, used to approve sales of alcohol.

The pilots are intended to explore how the technology can strengthen age checking and reduce violence against staff.

Retailers were invited to put forward their proposals for trialling the technology in March 2021 and the five supermarkets have now been named by the Home Office as participants.

The trials are already underway in stores, including a Co-op staff branch in its head office In Manchester, where AI-powered self-checkout cameras assess whether the shopper looks over 25.

The system, which Co-op has been trialling since November, relies on ‘facial age estimation’ rather than facial recognition software, and images are not stored.

“Co-op is carrying out a small-scale trial in a store located within our customer support centre for colleagues to use innovative age verification technology when purchasing alcohol at self-scan tills,” said a spokesman.

“Shoppers can choose whether to use the technology – which is not facial recognition and does not store or retain images.

“The pilot forms part of [Home Office] trials aimed at further enhancing compliance with the licensing objective to protect children from harm by reducing the risk of under-age sales.

“Asking for ID can also be a flashpoint for frustration for some shoppers, and become a trigger for the unacceptable levels of abuse and anti-social behaviour faced by frontline shopworkers.”

Co-op also sees potential to “make shopping quicker, easier and more convenient for customers, especially at busier times”, according to the spokesman.

Aldi is understood to be trialling the technology on a self-checkout in a Cambridge store.

Morrisons said it would be conducting trials in three stores in Yorkshire between February and May.

Asda also confirmed it was trialling the technology.

The pilots are the result of a ‘regulatory sandbox’, a way of enabling businesses to test new approaches in real-world situations without some of the usual rules applying. Regulatory sandboxes are funded by private enterprises and as such tend to attract ideas that could result in a return on investment.

The Home Office sees potential in the technology to allow people to establish their age without presenting physical ID, as required under current licencing laws.

However, retailers are expected to continue to meet all existing age verification legal requirements during the trials.

The Home Office intends the trials to be “small-scale”, agreed with local authorities and police, and to run until the end of May this year.

A Home Office spokeswoman said: “We are exploring how technology can give more protection to children from the health risks of underage drinking, while continuing to improve the system for businesses and customers.

“These trials will provide an opportunity for retailers to test new and innovative approaches to age verification, such as digital ID.”