Two strikes and you're out of business. That's the stark truth for independent stores under the government's plans to strip the licence from retailers who fail more than one test purchase for sales of alcohol to under-18s.
While company-owned stores might struggle through without sales of beer, wines and spirits, for those independents who are already under the cosh from the multiples, losing the licence to sell alcohol could see the shutters coming down for good.
Store owners now have a new nightmare: a trading standards officer or police officer in the store, and a shrugging member of staff saying "Well, she looked 18 to me."
When your future rests in the hands of a 20-year-old part-time shop assistant, you need to be sure you've done all you can to give that person the tools to make the right decisions. And while symbol groups and large store chains may be able to help out with centralised training regimes, how does the family-owned store ensure that staff meet their responsibilities?
Dave Newman owns three busy c-stores in Hastings, East Sussex.
"So many of the younger applicants aren't focused, with no sense of
responsibility," he says. "You could spend a lot of time and effort trying to drum routines into them and they would still let you down. You have to spot a spa rk in job applicants which tells you they'll understand the importance of their actions and take pride in acting responsibly."
Even better, he adds, hang on to the staff you have. "Keeping staff you can trust is the key - I've got about 20 staff and turnover is low. That doesn't mean I don't have to remind them of their responsibilities, but it's easier than starting from scratch."
When he does bring in new staff, sale of alcohol policy is a day one priority. "It's something I supervise myself," Dave says. "We have a policy which all staff have to read and sign as part of their contract."
This one-page document describes which products are age-restricted and clearly states that there are no circumstances under which sales of these to minors is acceptable. It also makes it very clear that sales of these items to under-18s is an offence which may result in a fine and a criminal record, not only for the store owner, but for the member of staff as well. Finally, it spells out the penalty for failure to comply: disciplinary action and the possibility of dismissal on the grounds of gross misconduct.
Dave tells his staff that as soon as they start on the tills they will be expected to make challenges if they suspect customers are under-age, and asking for ID from such customers. He makes it crystal clear how serious this is, not only for the business, but for staff personally.
"I make absolutely sure that they realise if they fall below the
standards I expect, they're out - and I always say, 'If I go to court, you'll be there with me'. That usually gets their attention."
After this initial wake-up call, training at Dave's stores is a rather more relaxed affair, relying on the support of existing staff to nurse the recruits up to speed. The training is strictly hands-on, on-the-job, and peer-to-peer.
"I have several staff with over 10 years' experience and the simple rule is that no new member of staff is ever left on their own. We're a small team but we work together. For example, if there's a young person hanging around the beers, you'll often see one member of staff nudge the other, just to check they're aware. If a challenge is made and there's any argument, the assistants deal with it together. It's all about teamwork."
In return for their investment in his business, Dave makes sure that all his staff realise how much they're appreciated. He pays above the
minimum wage and organises special social events during the course of
In many ways, it's classic carrot and stick. "I trust my staff to teach each other the ropes, and make sure they understand why upholding the law so important," Dave says. "But that doesn't mean I'm not prepared to be an ogre when I have to."
THE CO-OP WAY
According to Tim Pearce, chief operating officer of the Food Group at Plymouth & South West Co-operative, there are three elements to a successful age-related sales policy: training, training and training.
Speaking at the ACS Responsible Retailing Forum, Pearce revealed the Society's blueprint for meeting the requirements of the law and its own expectations.
l A two-hour session and questionnaire at induction
l Refresher training after five weeks for new staff
l Annual refresher training for all staff
l Re-training after any test purchase failure
l Manager's sign-off at every stage of training
l Policy and procedures clearly documented in Correct Operating Practices and Underage Sales manuals
l Internal test purchases carried out at 20 stores per month
l Till prompts to remind staff to challenge
l Refusal book and electronic records
l Regular checks of POS signage and refusal book
In addition, the company provides:
l Additional training for designated premises supervisors and personal licence holders
l 'Managing Conflict' courses for selected staff
l Mobile security and panic buttons
l Daily reminders from store managers and till sign-on prompts
l Customer information cards and an
in-store help desk
l Progress updates via a newsletter
l Awards and recognition for test purchase successes