The illicit alcohol trade is still thriving despite growing levels of activity by HMRC, as operators are increasingly delivering direct to stores from unmarked warehouses, retailers and wholesalers are reporting.

Independent retailer Nigel Dowdney from Swainsthorpe, Norfolk, told C-Store: “My beer and wine sales are down and it’s not because people are drinking less - it’s because they are buying from stores who are using illicit van sellers to sell alcohol for less than I can buy it for. Whether they know that what they are buying is illicit is open for debate.”

According to the Federation of Wholesale Distributors (FWD), Nielsen figures show consumers are abandoning supermarket multi-buys and purchasing more beer from local shops, but this growth is not being reflected in sales by wholesalers. In the 12 months to April 2012, take-home beer volumes fell by 8% while impulse sales rose by 4%, but FWD members reported volumes down 12% in the first five months of the year.

“The illicit trade is very much moving off the radar in terms of the number of temporary wholesalers springing up,” one London wholesaler told the Federation. “What we’re seeing now is a white van delivery service being offered around.”

FWD communications director David Visick urged retailers to think twice before accepting any stock from a van which turned up at the door, or a source which only had a phone number. “If the price is less than the local cash and carry, if the offer is cash only, or if there’s little or no paperwork, it should ring alarm bells,” he said.

Brandon Cook, lead officer of the Trading Standards Institute, told C-Store that ignorance of the law was no excuse. “Retailers are the ones who will have their licence revoked, be prosecuted, or both,” he said.