David Sands Ltd’s award-winning responsible retailing policy is built on rigorous staff training, testing and reinforcement
Early one morning last month a dishevelled character approached the counter in a Perth convenience store and asked for a bottle of vodka. The assistant on duty refused him, as it was outside licensed hours, to which he responded by pointing to a picture of a murder suspect on the front of a nearby newspaper. “That’s me,” he said. “I’m taking it.”
“What happened next was a textbook example of training being put into action,” says Charles Hamilton, security manager for David Sands Ltd, which owns the store. “The assistant let him go, but set off the alarm to summon the manager, who went out of the store to check the man’s description and direction of travel, then hit the personal attack alarm with a direct link to the police station. The police rang immediately, and the manager told them: ‘We’ve got your murderer’. They picked him up 500 yards from the store.”
As an organisation which takes its responsibility to the communities it serves very seriously, it is a matter of pride for David Sands - which operates 24 stores in the Fife and Tayside regions in Scotland - that its staff have the ability to deal with situations like this. But it is the commitment to staff training which has given them that skill and confidence.
Well-drilled staff are the key to an age-related products policy which earned the company national recognition at the 2007 Responsible Drinks Retailing Awards, and which allows it to boast that it has never had a store licence suspended or refused. The need for constant attention to staff skills levels has heightened since the Licensing (Scotland) Act 2005 which, from September next year, will demand stipulated levels of training for everyone from licensing standards officers and personal licence holders, to staff on the tills.
“I cannot think of any legislation that will have a greater impact on our business,” says managing director David Sands. “All stores will be required to have a personal licence holder on duty at all times. All our management teams, including stand-in supervisors, will have to have this required training and pass an exam.
“All staff will be required to receive an additional four hours of training covering the legislation.”
The penalty for failing to drum home the message may be severe. “We understand that many Licensing Boards will automatically suspend a licence for three months in a store that fails a single test purchase. If any of our stores lost a licence for this time then I would suggest that we would lose tens of thousands of pounds, not to mention subsequent job losses, and this concerns me greatly.”
Sands has its own training centre accredited by ServeWise, the Scottish training provider for the licensed trade, and a full-time personnel and training manager who conducts in-house staff training.
Staff training begins at induction, with every employee expected to sign the Sale of Alcohol Policy as part of their contract of employment. During an induction day at head office, each employee has to complete an Age Related Products questionnaire before they are allowed to serve at the till.
Three months later, employees return to both the questionnaire and the policy document as their induction is completed. From this year, the company has also added the requirement that all retail assistants must attend the uncertified Standard Off Licence Course, and pass an exam at this stage.
After that, all employees are required to undertake supervised refresher training on age-related products three times a year, and complete a two-page questionnaire.
This is not something to be treated lightly. “Our policy is that quality time will be given to refresher training by a member of the management team, who will go through the training material with the employee and discuss issues raised,” says Hamilton. “The test paper is then completed and the results examined to ensure due competence.”
These forms are kept in the employee’s personal file - along with a record of all internal test purchasing activity for each member of staff, including the date tested, the result and details of action taken such as refresher training, disciplinary action and so on. The company is confident that this training format will meet the requirements of a defence of due diligence in Scottish law as laid down in the Licensing Act, although Hamilton warns: “I do feel there is a wake-up call to licensees that the former defence of ‘due diligence’ may not stand up in the climate where there is political pressure on the police and licensing boards to rigidly enforce the licensing laws.”
Training, however, is only valuable if its effect is measurable. “Most licensed convenience stores will have training programmes to combat the sale of alcohol to youngsters,” he adds, “but those initiatives in themselves are simply not enough. Due diligence can be achieved only by proactively test-purchasing staff - it’s not enough for a sale of alcohol policy to be written at senior management level and to expect automatic compliance by all sales staff. A visit to the coal face may uncover a minefield of disappointments.”
Consequently, the company runs its own extensive test-purchasing programme. “We use an 18-year-old member of staff and we’ll visit 10 or 12 stores in an evening,” says Hamilton. “It’s something we take very seriously - it’s our aim to test every one of our 500-600 staff at least once in a 12-month period.”
If the member of staff on the till fails to ask for proof of age, it is seen as a disciplinary matter which may result in a warning being given, along with immediate refresher training.
“Even though our training has been held up as an example by two licensing boards and has won several awards, we still get failures,” says Hamilton.
The company has no qualms about acting on a failure to learn from the training. But if that’s the stick, there’s a carrot, too: local police conduct their own test purchases and if the company is informed that a store has successfully passed, the member of staff in question gets a £50 voucher.
In a message circulated to all staff, David Sands says: “Test purchasing is something that all retailers are very concerned about. No one is immune and the onus is on each of us to stick to our strict ID policy.”
The message emphasises that test purchases would continue. “Unfortunately, Big Brother is watching you,” Sands concludes, “but if we all do our jobs professionally, our reputation as a responsible retailer will remain intact.”
Hamilton adds that he hopes other retailers will approach the issue with a similar dedication, for the good of the entire sector. “Of course, we all want to comply with the law and prevent the abuse of alcohol by youngsters,” he says, “but it is just as crucial that we all demonstrate that the convenience trade is committed to responsible drinks retailing.”