When weighing up someone’s age, retailers and their staff usually get a split second to make a decision. In that instant they can make a genuine mistake and put through an illegal sale.

At the first No ID No Sale seminar in London on January 17, the Association of Convenience Stores (ACS) chief executive David Rae highlighted the pressure retailers are under by welcoming four teenagers on stage and asking delegates - mainly comprising trading standards officers and police - to guess their ages.

Over the course of several minutes, the luxury of which retailers don’t usually have, the guesses ranged across a wide selection of ages from 19 to 14. The kids were, in fact, 15 or 16.

The experiment showed the immense pressure and responsibility placed on retailers and staff on the store floor every day.

In October 2005 the Retail Alcohol Standards Group (RASG) was launched with the intention of eliminating underage sales of alcohol by the end of 2006.

To achieve this aim, delegates and speakers agreed that strong links between retailers, Trading Standards and the government would be needed, plus the rollout of more in-store signage highlighting the RASG’s Under 21 campaign, which calls on all retailers to ask anyone who looks under 21 for ID.

However, most importantly, the hurdles of implementing a national ID scheme and a full change in attitudes towards buying alcohol would have to be addressed if any real results are to be attained and pressure on retailers is to be lifted.

The BII, formerly the British Institute of Innkeepers, represents 17,500 members including off licences. BII chief executive John McNamara said that he believed the present laws covering the sale of age-restricted goods placed a heavy responsibility on retailers and their staff, and the issues needed to be made clearer for retailers.

He said: “Retailers now face heavy fines, loss of licence and reputation, and even imprisonment under the new licensing laws. The industry, the government and local authorities must give retailers and their staff the confidence and skills to ask for ID, and we can no longer have retailers with the attitude that when they do ask for ID the age given is close enough.

“One solution is for the government, which has pledged to cut red tape, to follow this through and make the laws concerning licensing easier to understand for hard-pressed owners of small businesses. At the last count 195 Acts affected small businesses - no wonder some are still getting caught out.

"The government and Trading Standards must recognise how difficult it is for retailers on the front line. We have to work towards a change in culture until we get a much-needed national ID scheme.”

Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Policing, Security and Community Safety, Paul Goggins MP, lent his full support to the No ID No Sale campaign and said that only by the government and the drinks industry working in partnership could the campaign against underage sales be successful.

He also encouraged all retailers to sign up to the Under 21 campaign launched by the government and the RASG (C-Store, December 2, 2005).

He commented: “The government acknowledges retailer worries when asking for ID and the fact it can often lead to confrontation and, in some cases, violence. I agree that a culture change is needed in which people should expect to not only carry ID but be asked for it.
“I would also like to encourage all retailers to implement a No ID No Sale message into their store policy.”

The ACS' David Rae said that retailers were both part of the problem and the solution when it came to underage sales, with many doing or trying to do the right thing.
He also reiterated the need for a change in people’s attitude towards buying alcohol and pointed out who he believed should be leading this change.

He commented: “We will not defend irresponsible retailers and we accept that there are some out there. However, trying to buy alcohol shouldn’t be seen as a rite of passage by youngsters, especially when we are talking about people’s livelihoods.

“The ACS and its members are delighted with what the minister said about the need for a change in attitude, but we feel that this change needs to be led by Tony Blair himself. We need schemes that will help improve the work of retailers, not penalise them, and this includes a code of practice for test purchasing that everyone can agree on.”

The role of Trading Standards and test purchase operations was defended by Trading Standards Institute head officer for underage sales Brandon Cook, who highlighted the work the organisation has done in providing guidance and advice to retailers.

He said: “We spend more time putting this message across than anything else. We hope that by talking about precautions, retailers can put into place steps to avoid making that illegal sale.”

He did not condone some of the test purchase operations in which children had been told to lie about their age, and believed this practice would not be incorporated in any revised test purchasing code of practice.

However, he stated that the code of practice was not law and that using different methods during test purchasing made sure store owners and staff did not get used to Trading Standards’ methods or the people involved.

“The question should not be ‘How old are you?’, it should be ‘Have you got ID?’, which takes the lying about age aspect out of the equation,” he said.

Wine and Spirits Trade Association chief executive and RASG representative Jeremy Beadles confirmed that the newly formed group was determined to do all it can to help retailers stop underage sales.

The group currently has 12 members including the ACS, Tesco, the Co-op, United Co-op and Somerfield, covering 8,500 outlets, and is looking to spread its message to the on trade.
Beadles said: “The industry is under pressure to show it is doing all it can to reduce underage drinking. What we need, and what RASG is trying to achieve, is a consistency and visibility of approach to raise awareness of this issue. Already we have agreed and rolled out Under 21 signage, which is very visible in many stores.”

Beadles also agreed that a culture change was needed in the long term, but acknowledged that in the short term it was up to retailers, Trading Standards, trade associations, and the government to come to together to do all they can to make the goal of reducing underage sales achievable.
He concluded: “We want to see improvements quickly, and just by forming RASG we have taken a big step towards achieving this.

“We are going to review what we are doing throughout the year to make sure we are doing the best we can to tackle this issue, and hopefully during the course of 2006 and onwards we can grow our membership and our message to make our target of eliminating underage drinking attainable and make the job of c-store retailers an easier one.”