With legislation for key categories increasing year by year, it’s more important than ever that stores adhere to best practice for responsible retailing. Training firm Underage Sales is on the case, according to boss Tony Allen, offering up-to-date support to businesses nationwide 

Retail Newsagent: What is the main initiative you are working on now?

Tony Allen, MD of Underage SalesTony Allen: We’re continuing to roll out our Responsible Tobacco Retailing programme, which involves using mystery shopper test purchases to identify shops at risk of making underage tobacco sales.

We then offer free-of-charge training to at-risk stores. We’re working our way around the country: we started in the north west of England, are just launching in Northern Ireland, and we will finish up in London.

RN: What are your key findings from the roll-out of the programme so far?

TA: We’re not surprised by what we’ve found, but it is quite concerning. The pass rate is hovering around 50% to 55%.

This is low, but it’s partly because we’re focusing on independent retailers and so working with many shops that haven’t been tested before, including some that don’t sell alcohol.

We’ve also found 90% of stores that have failed two test purchases have no structured training in place for their staff. It shows how absolutely important it is to have that training in place.

RN: How does your training work?

TA: Independent retailers often don’t have the resources to afford training. More importantly, they don’t have the resources to release staff to do training courses.

We get past that by doing it in store, using qualified trading standards professionals to do it. We can also put stores through a BTEC in preventing underage sales, which really helps cements what they learn.

Retailers have been really responsive and we’ve passed out thousands of qualifications to staff so far.

RN: What are you looking at working on next?

TA: We’re looking at e-cigarettes and vaping, where regulations came in earlier this year.

Research shows very low levels of compliance, so we’re talking to the vaping industry about how to bring support to that industry.

It involves very different types of retailers, because there are lots of specialist vaping shops, so it’s a different challenge.

company-cvRN: ASH recently restated their support for tobacco licensing to be introduced in the UK. Is this a reasonable burden to place on retailers?

TA: It depends on how the government goes about it. In the case of alcohol licensing, there are four objectives when deciding whether to issue alcohol licences: preventing crime and disorder, preventing harm to children, etc.

So the local authority would have to set out the objectives that would guide decisions in the case of smoking.

If these objectives are very one-sided, a local election could produce a situation where a local party pledges to stamp out or at least clamp down on tobacco sales in their area using licensing.

Then if they’re elected – and that’s just local democracy in action – it would drive up illicit trade and do serious damage to retailers in the area. 

So I think what you’d need is balancing objectives. Promotion of public health and protecting children from harm would be guaranteed to be there. You probably also need to have reducing the illicit trade and producing a thriving local economy to give it balance.

RN: What alternative to tobacco licensing could you suggest?

TA: A more practical scheme is registration, as already exists in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

So rather than licensing and giving permission to do something, you’re simply registering that people are doing it, which is a fairer and less burdensome approach.

It lets you know where products are being sold and helps deal with the illicit trade.