Being caught out by a test purchase organised by your own employers may be the off-trade equivalent of being shot down by friendly fire. But with the stakes so high in drinks retailing
and Trading Standards stings costing stores thousands of pounds and even their licences, many retail groups have decided to carry out their own covert checks on their staff.
A few years ago, in-house test purchasing was remarkable enough to impress judges in OLN's Responsible Drinks Retailing Awards and virtually secure
the top prize. By the time of this year's judging, it had become the norm. David Sands, the Scottish convenience group, regards it as "critical".
Operations director Stephen Brown explains the practice combines a bit of carrot and a bit of stick. "Failure to ask for proof of age from mystery test purchasers, who are under 21, is deemed a disciplinary matter resulting in a warning being given along with immediate refresher training," he says.
"Members of staff correctly asking for proof of age are rewarded with a £50 voucher."
Sands has been operating a test purchase system for some years and was even asked by Fife Constabulary to help with the launch of the Scottish test purchasing pilot scheme.
Capper & Co, which owns and operates more than 100 Spar stores in Wales and south west England, has teamed up with Coors to run in-house test purchasing. The company's Rick Wheeler says: "We believe in telling people when they have got something right, as well as when it is wrong, and rewarding them in some way. Even if it is the expected norm, we all like to be thanked and receive some recognition for a job well done - words sometimes are not enough.
"Each employee will receive a certificate of competency and a small gift after successfully passing an internal test purchase."
Thresher has recently started its own test purchasing. Philip Loring, head of central operations, says the group has enlisted the help of an external company to carry out the programme. "We believe in rewarding staff for getting it right," he explains. "In January we introduced a cash store bonus of £20 for staff who correctly challenge a test purchaser - either our own internal company ones or those carried out by police and Trading Standards.
"We are very proud of the fact that to date we have paid out over £10,000 in staff 'get it right' bonuses."
It might also be noted that Thresher is currently challenging 55,000 sales a month and refusing 35 per cent of those because no ID is presented. Assume an average transaction of £6 and it adds up to almost £1.8 million revenue forfeited in the name of responsible retailing.
Wine Cellar and Lincolnshire Co-op were two other entrants in this year's RDR Awards who cited internal test purchasing as a useful element of their fight against under-age sales (though both prefer to offer staff letters of thanks, rather than rewards, for their diligence).
But all chains who use the tactic stress that it has to be viewed within a wider package of measures.
Jeremy Beadles, chief executive of the Wine & Spirit Trade Association, says internal test purchasing got off to a slow start but is now widely accepted. "There is consistently more of it going on now," he says. "There was a view among a lot of store groups that 'it's not us' - then test purchasing identified that there were problems in their stores. Over a period of time they got over some of the fear.
"It quite often catches out people they would have never thought would get caught out - their star-performing store managers sometimes."
He adds: "It certainly has a place in the repertoire of things that they do, even if it's just to test systems to make sure everything is working. It's very easy when you're in head office to assume it's all fine."
Brandon Cook, a Staffordshire Trading Standards chief who represents the Trading Standards Institute, believes it is increasingly difficult to justify not conducting internal test purchases.
"What licensees in the past have done is have till prompts and refusals books and things like that, and these things are precautions," he says. "But the defence [available to them in court] is diligence and precautions.
"What steps have they taken to make sure the precautions make a difference? You've got to do something [such as test purchasing] to show that the precautions you're taking are making a difference.
"Often as much as 20 per cent of the time staff aren't doing what they've been trained to do."
But however effective retailers think their system is, they are likely to encounter Cook's staff for the foreseeable future in Home Office-endorsed test purchases.
"I would be interested in looking at internal test purchase methods to see how thorough it is and who the volunteers are," he says.
But with licences and reputations on the line, any retailer who takes short-cuts with test purchasing is short-sighted indeed.