Why staying on the right side of the law is such a priority

Retailers are already used to a strict enforcement regime for sales of alcohol, solvents and fireworks. Indeed, hardly a day seems to go by without a trader somewhere failing a test purchase, with all the consequences, such as steep fines and loss of reputation, that ensue.
And with the legal purchasing age for tobacco having been increased, and with the nation's health front of mind for the government, clamping down on underaged tobacco sales has also become a top priority for enforcers.
So, with the authorities out to test you, never has being a responsible retailer been so important.
"Being a responsible retailer is a top priority, no matter how small you are," says Gallaher group communications officer Jeremy Blackburn. "Being caught is a serious matter. Retailers can face fines of up to £5,000."
The fact that most underage sales are made by young staff members, rather than store owners, highlights just how vital a comprehensive staff training programme is. "Trained staff are confident staff," says Nisa retailer and Skillsmart Retail board member Kishor Patel. "You need to have a good programme in place and you need to stick to it," he adds.
Keeping a record of staff training is also vital. Not only can it help you identify gaps in individual staff members' knowledge, but it is also good for showing Trading Standards that you are making an effort to stay on the right side of the law.
But it's not always easy. No matter how polite you or your staff are, asking customers for ID often results in abuse and intimidation by customers who feel humiliated at having to prove their age.
"Because of this we need to create a culture, as exists in the USA, where people expect to be asked for their ID no matter what their age," says Kishor.
The No ID No Sale campaign has gone some way to achieving this, and an increasing number of retailers, including Spar Scotland owner CJ Lang, have recently scrapped the Challenge 21 policy in favour of a 'Challenge 25' scheme.
Fortunately, technology is helping retailers to stay on the straight and narrow. New fingerprint-scanning technology and facial-recognition systems make the age-check process less embarrassing for customers and less intimidating for staff.
Retailer David Bridge, who owns the Here to Please You store in Manchester, has been using OK.ID's counter-top fingerprint scanner for five months. "It's fantastic," he says. "More than 50 young people have signed up, and the best part is that they enjoy using the machine!"
Over-18s register by bringing in a valid form of ID. Their prints are then scanned, and from then on they simply need to place their finger in the scanner to instantly verify their age.

Caught on camera

Meanwhile, cutting-edge technology which counts wrinkles and skin sags to check a smoker's age is being trialled in Japan. Purchasers who fail the digital camera "age test" are required to show the machine an ID card to establish if they are legally allowed to smoke. If trials are successful, the technology could appear here as early as next year.
A similar system which captures customers' images and scans them against a database of those who have previously attempted to buy goods underage is being trialled in a handful of UK stores, including a Budgens branch in London. Rollout of the Age Watch System is expected later in the year.
However, being a responsible retailer goes much further than simply checking ID.
"It's also vital that retailers' keep an accurate and up-to-date refusals register," says ACS chef executive James Lowman. "Registers are a good way of training staff, and they also enable managers to identify staff not using them."
They have also been used to prove due diligence and in some cases have saved retailers from being punished.
Vital information to be included in a refusals register is: date of refusal; product refused; time; name or description of person; observations about them; and which staff member refused the sale.
However, no matter how vigilant and well trained your staff are, one thing that is virtually impossible to guard against is proxy purchasers - people over the age of 18 who buy age-restricted products for minors.
Unfortunately, the government has passed up an opportunity to introduce a prohibition on proxy purchasing for tobacco in the Criminal Justice & Immigration Bill, which received Royal Assent last month, meaning that retailers will have to keep policing the system.
Quite often proxy purchases are made by family members such as older siblings or even parents, but plenty of others are made by adults who have been press-ganged into doing so by youths on the street. Some UK towns are now putting systems in place to stop this. One example is the Surrey town of East Molesey, where town centre CCTV operators watch the outside of shops and off licences to identify gangs of attempting to stop passers-by. They then notify the police.
Keeping your front windows clear of posters and shelving so that you have a good view of what's going on in the street is also a good idea, and there are a few telltale signs for retailers to identify proxy purchasers in their store. Uncertainty on behalf of the purchaser is one. Method of payment is another - a large handful of loose change can indicate that the person is buying on behalf of a group of minors, as youths often club together.

Tobacco and the law

Tobacco retailers are PERMITTED to:
l Display one A5 size tobacco advertisement with a health warning on the tobacco unit
l Advertise rolling papers and accessories in store
l Allow an employee of any age to sell tobacco,
as long as they ensure that the customer is
over 18.

Tobacco retailers are PROHIBITED from:
l Selling tobacco products, including rolling papers, to anyone under the age of 18
l Selling cigarettes in quantities of less than prepackaged 10s
l Offer incentives to customers to purchase tobacco products
l Selling products that share the name of a cigarette brand
l Selling smuggled or counterfeit products
l Smoking in their retail premises.

Tobacco retailers MUST:
l Communicate the price of the product
l Request to see ID of any young person purchasing if in doubt of their age
l Sell only legitimate UK duty-paid stock with a current health warning
l Display a statutory notice in a prominent position at the point of sale. It must be A3 with characters no less than 36mm high and stating "it is illegal to sell tobacco products to anyone under the age of 18".