In the fight against under-age alcohol sales, the people who serve on the tills are the frontline troops. It is their vigilance, and attention to detail, which can stop a 16-year-old youth getting dangerously drunk, prevent a shop from potentially losing its licence, and maintain the good name of the trade generally.
But such staff can also be the weakest link. Without proper training - and an understanding of why that training is necessary - it is only a matter of time before they slip up, either in a genuine sale to a customer under 18 or in a test purchase conducted by Trading Standards. The consequences, in both scenarios, could be horrendous.
Staff who are caught selling to children generally receive a fixed penalty notice
or a caution. Some are taken away to a police station for questioning - an experience that many sales assistants, normally law-abiding people who have never been in trouble before, find harrowing. Some are so upset by the ordeal that they never return to their jobs.
Matthew Hughes, joint managing director of Bargain Booze, says: "In fairness, our franchisees and their staff have a phenomenally challenging role in the retail front line. The full glare of the spotlight is on them.
"A test purchase failure results in a fixed penalty notice for the cashier, not to mention the disciplinary investigation - and possible action - that he or she will be subject to from the employer. It's a tough job that isn't getting any easier."
Hughes believes assistants
at independents and smal
are possibly buying
responsible drinks retailing more readily
at larger groups.
"Where we perhaps score over managed chains is that we have franchisees that run their own businesses, rather than managers who are simply doing a job for a big faceless company," he says.
"The franchisees are fully alive to the issues in the marketplace. They cannot help but be aware of the media attention this issue generates - the Daily Mail does seem to be setting policy these days - and the government's focus that perhaps results from it, not least because we from head office keep banging on about it.
"Because of this entrepreneurial element within our group, franchisees are already motivated, and through their close proximity to their staff this motivation and sense of urgency
"Obviously from a head office point of view we keep the issue very much on the agenda. At our monthly franchisee meetings we give presentations regarding responsible retailing and the current state of the marketplace as far as legislation is concerned."
quarterly refresher training questions for the franchisees
are given to staff and
update point-of-sale guidelines. "Fundamentally it's all about communication. T he ethos of responsible retailing is totally woven into the day-to-day running of the business."
When the Retail of Alcohol Standards Group studied the behaviour of sales assistants who were regularly challenging customers to prove their age, it found that men and women often acted very differently. In particular, it found, men often find it embarrassing to ask young women how old they are.
"For women it may be embarrassing - but it can be funny," the report said. "The idea that one might be lucky enough to look under 21 provides a humorous take on the situation that women can carry into their interaction, but men, generally, cannot.
It added: "Some of the phrases used by women might be very differently interpreted if used by men, like 'you shouldn't be so damn good looking'. One
reported discomfort at having to scrutinise girls to assess their age for fear of being seen as a pervert ."
Shane Brennan of the Association of Convenience Stores says: "The research doesn't show that women are better than men - it's about how each gender handles situations differently. It's important that staff training addresses this ."
Wine & Spirit Trade Association chief executive Jeremy Beadles believes that retail training
consider the needs of individual sales
staff and the situations they find themselves in - not merely pump them full of legal know-how.
The role of test purchasing is also explored in the study. The authors argue
that "test purchasing does not resonate with the way cashiers see themselves, with cashiers feeling that it transforms them from community 'police' to criminals in minutes". But it's here to stay - and employers who don't help their teams deal with it are letting down themselves, and the trade at large.
'Insist on training'
- says Usdaw
Shopworkers' union Usdaw encourages off-licence staff to take a proactive line with their employers to ensure the shop's procedures are watertight - and employees get the best protection they can.
"Insist on training from your employer on company procedure for age-restricted sales and to inform you of all relevant legislation," it advises. "Ask your employer to display No ID, No Sale notices (available at citizencard.net).
"Keep a register which will prove that you do refuse sales when in doubt. Make sure your manager signs the register every day. You can obtain a refusals register at citizencard.net.
"Point out that you could get fined for making an under-age sale. A young person could be fined ú50 for attempting to buy alcohol if they are under 18.
"Know company procedure for dealing with customers who become abusive when refused a sale. Report all incidents of abuse, threats or violence to your line manager and keep a record. This could be used to ban the young person from the store, or as police evidence for an ASBO.
"Stay calm: you may have a long queue at your checkout and feel under pressure to rush. Don't let this stop you asking for proof of age. Be polite but firm: other adults in the queue will understand your dilemma and appreciate your determination not to break the law.
"If in doubt, refuse the sale
the manager or ask a colleague for assistance."