How can e-commerce retailers prevent the underage sale of alcohol?

By Rachel Arthur

- Last updated on GMT

Age-gates do little to stop underage drinkers ordering online - so how else can underage sales be stopped? Pic: getty/farknot
Age-gates do little to stop underage drinkers ordering online - so how else can underage sales be stopped? Pic: getty/farknot

Related tags Alcohol ecommerce Uk Wine Beer RTD alcohol

Sales of alcohol online are becoming increasingly important: but it’s extremely difficult for retailers and brands to know if they’re selling to underage drinkers. A new set of guidelines from the UK’s Retail of Alcohol Standards Group (RASG) sets out advice on best practice for the fast-growing rapid home delivery sector.

Online age verifications (or age-gates) on alcohol retailer sites are practically useless – it being very easy for an underage drinker to enter a fictitious date of birth.

To that end, the RASG’s guidance focuses on the delivery aspect of alcohol e-commerce: the priority being that while minors may be able to place orders, they cannot get these items handed over on delivery.

How effective are current age restriction rules?

RASG was established in 2005 to tackle underage sales and underage drinking: most notably launching the ‘Challenge 25’ ID policy in 2006 (even though the legal age to purchase alcohol in the UK is 18 years old, retailers are encouraged to ID anyone​ who looks under 25). 

But times have changed: and membership of RASG now includes online specialist alcohol retailers and rapid delivery business.

Rapid Delivery businesses deliver small quantities of food items and everyday products in the shortest possible time.

They typically operate in urban areas and focus on providing deliveries that have not been planned in advance. 

Members of RASG include:

  • Supermarkets Tesco, Morrisons, Waitrose, Sainsbury's, LIDL, ALDI, Co-op, M&S, Spar
  • UK trade association WSTA (representing 300 companies producing, importing, exporting and selling wine & spirits)
  • Member-owned wine community The Wine Society
  • Online wine retailer Laithwaites Wine

The unique selling point of these services is speed and accessibility.

RD of groceries, household products and other goods, including age restricted products such as alcohol and tobacco, have significantly increased in popularity over the past few years and are no longer a niche category in the UK grocery sector.

This surge in growth, teamed with the ability of consumers to access age restricted products within as little as 15 minutes, has raised questions about just how effective current age restriction rules are.

There remains a legal obligation to check the age of restricted products when purchased – which the RASG supports – but its latest set of recommendations focus on what checks can be made at delivery.

The guide identifies the two main types of RD businesses currently available – those that both sell and deliver products, and those that only deliver.

The nature of each business model can vary enormously: and delivery operatives can be employees, self-contracted or workers.

In relation to alcohol, businesses that offer a delivery service only do not require a premise licence. In this case, liability for underage sales of alcohol lie with the business that sold the alcohol and puts their licence at risk. Those businesses that both sell and deliver alcohol must ensure that they comply with the legal requirements within the Licensing Act 2003.

Making rules clear to customers...

Customers should confirm they are 18+ when placing an order for age restricted products. But more importantly, it should be made clear to them when ordering that deliveries will not be made to minors, and that delivery operatives may not complete the delivery if they are unsure of a person’s age.

Another policy that should be made clear is that alcohol won't be left with neighbors or in a storage locker or equivalent.

... and to delivery operatives

Businesses need to create a culture and understanding among delivery operatives that deliveries should not be made to under 18s, notes the new RASG guidance.

That includes making sure delivery operatives are not personally at a disadvantage if they refuse to deliver (for example, there should be no penalty for the delivery operative in terms of payment if deliveries aren't carried out).

Businesses should also consider reminding employees that underage deliveries and deliveries to intoxicated customers may constitute gross misconduct with potential loss of employment.

They should also consider offering delivery operatives training in conflict management, to help them identify and manage any potential conflict.

And, indeed, training of delivery operatives form a key part of the recommendations: ensuring they know the rules and are equipped to deal with difficult situations.

“Businesses should consider providing all delivery operatives, whether employees, self contractors or workers, with training on policies regarding delivering of age restricted products, refusing to make a delivery and managing conflict,” notes the guidance.

“This training should cover scenarios on what to do if delivery operatives believe a customer is intoxicated.”

The type and format of the training will depend on the business model, the products being offered and business resources. But, at its base, it should include how to carry out age verification, what verification is acceptable, how to refuse a sale, how to identify intoxicated customers, conflict management and personal safety of operatives. 

Businesses should consider a 'multi-format' approach: such as combining online modules, in-person training and on-the-job training/shadowing.

"Training on delivering age restricted products [can] be provided prior to the delivery operatives first delivery and can, as best practice, continue as on the job training."

And the principles of the Challenge 25 policy should be maintained: “Delivery staff should be aware of the basic principle of Challenge 25 when delivering age restricted products (i.e. if the age of the consumer is in doubt, and no acceptable identification can be provided, the delivery must not be made).”

The guidance can be found in full here.​ 

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