Forecourt retailers have dramatically improved their performance in preventing underage sales of alcohol and cigarettes by adopting best retail practices, according to independent test purchasing company Serve Legal.

Regular testing of sales procedures to ensure that staff are enforcing age check policies has seen many more sites regularly achieving pass rates.

A detailed breakdown of site visits during the last three years reveals that forecourt retailers have significantly closed the gap with supermarkets, which have traditionally been better when it comes to checkout staff requesting customer ID to prevent underage sales.

In 2009, the forecourt sector pass rate was just 53%. In 2010 this improved to 68% and in the first six months of 2011 up to the end of September, the pass rate jumped to 76%. By comparison, supermarket pass rate was 78% in 2010 and 80% in 2011, and convenience stores achieved 77% in 2010 and 78% in 2011.

During 2011 up to September, Serve Legal has carried out 1,915 alcohol site visits and 289 cigarettes visits to forecourt retailers. A Serve Legal test purchase is a ‘pass’ if its mystery visitor is required to provide official ID to complete the purchase. Outlets ‘fail’ if the visitor is able to make a purchase without being asked for ID.

Charlie Mowat, director of Serve Legal, said: “Forecourt retailers have really got their act together in the last two to three years. I think there was once a perception that operators were not as sophisticated when it came to shop retailing compared with other retail sectors. That is definitely not the case anymore.

“They have taken on best practices such as effective staff training, better management procedures and regular testing used by supermarkets and major independents and, as a result, have improved in leaps and bounds.”

He added: “Trading Standards are now looking more closely at forecourt retailers and the convenience sector as a whole as they believe that supermarkets are now on top of the issue of underage sales. This means that forecourt operators who are not regularly testing their procedures and implementing effective Challenge 21/25 policies are running a real risk.

“Operators must demonstrates to the authorities that they take the issue of underage sales very seriously and are doing all they can to ensure it doesn’t happen to help to protect their business from possible prosecution or loss of licence.”

Clive Leeson, sales manager at Brobot Petroleum, which operates 21 sites, highlighted the value of regular testing of staff performance. “We have worked with Serve Legal for the last year and its visits and site analysis has helped our members’ awareness of the importance of having robust systems in place to ensure that they are continually monitoring customers and identifying those who may be under age,” said Clive.

“In turn this helps them to run their businesses more professionally and helps to clampdown on underage sales. Their role is important in helping us to stay the right side of the law and local authorities.”

Mowat said that Serve Legal offers the following practical advice to retailers that it works with to help them avoid running into trouble with the Trading Standards, local authorities and the police.

• Encourage sales staff to make eye contact with the customer as early as possible. Serve Legal analysis shows that the pass rate is significantly higher when eye contact is made, but significantly higher again if eye contact is made BEFORE the transaction.

• Continue to modify, improve and refine training of sales staff to ensure it is relevant and up to date, and carry out regular training and refresher sessions for ALL sales staff.

• Stress the absolute need for staff to ask and check customer ID and ensure young people have an acceptable proof of age card with the PASS logo: always tell staff to err on the side of caution – if someone looks like they may be underage, ask for ID.

• Use Challenge 21/25 point of sale material as much as possible to create a culture where all staff and customers expect ID to be requested. Ensuring posters are clearly visible to staff as well as customers can have a significant impact.

• Encourage use of staff badges that explain that sales staff have to ask for customer ID by law.

• Keep a detailed record of all admission and service refusals in a logbook or via the till, to show that you manage a well-run store: date and time, gender of customer, member of staff responsible

• Carry out regular, random checks to test the effectiveness of your management and operating systems. Independent test purchasing has two major benefits: performance on underage sales improves and thus the risk of a licence review is reduce, and at licence review, results can be used to show you are a well managed business.