17th December 2019

Doing without… test purchasing

Test purchases are a crucial way for trading standards to keep harmful products out of young people’s reach


By Eleni Chalkidou
Director of Communications, Chartered Trading Standards Institute
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Test purchases are not about trying to catch people out – they are about preventing irresponsible practices that endanger our communities

“But mummy, if someone wanted to hurt someone with a knife why don’t they just take one from their kitchen?” Well, Achilles, nobody says they can’t but we also need to make sure shops don’t sell them to kids without checking their age.

How do you explain to a six-year-old the dangers of selling restricted goods to minors?

Age-restricted sales continue to be a hot topic for trading standards. And rightly so. A troubling upsurge in youth-oriented knife crime has pushed the sale of restricted goods – particularly offensive weapons – into the spotlight, with politicians, the police, the media and trading standards all acknowledging that more must be done to stop dangerous goods getting into the hands of young people.

A big part of how trading standards does this is, ironically, by attempting to get dangerous goods into the hands of young people. Or so some critics would describe it. Test purchases rely on young volunteers going into shops and attempting to buy age-restricted products. When the system works, the retailer asks for ID and, since the volunteer won’t be able to supply it, a sale will be refused. If a retailer fails and makes a sale, they can be subject to enforcement actions.

Test purchasing has always been one of the more controversial aspects of trading standards – when they have been caught out, some retailers have complained that it is unfair, and even that it can resemble entrapment. Trading standards teams have been accused of deliberately picking volunteers who look older than they actually are, or of encouraging volunteers to lie about their age when challenged.

This misses the point though – and it is precisely why test purchases are so important. Without the use of underage volunteers in test purchasing there would be no meaningful enforcement of age-restricted sales. Without test purchasing there would be an unfettered supply of unhealthy and dangerous goods. Teenagers often do look older than they are – and anyone who remembers what it was like to be young knows that youngsters may not always be scrupulously honest. By replicating this in a controlled, supervised way, test purchases place the onus of responsibility firmly where it belongs – upon retailers who have a duty to request proof of age before making a sale. Furthermore, most test purchases are intelligence-led, and are likely to target retailers with an existing track record of underage sales complaints against them.

Test purchases are not about trying to catch people out – they are about preventing irresponsible practices that endanger our communities. A truly responsible retailer would welcome test purchases as a way of ensuring that they and their staff are playing their part.

The positive impact of test purchases is two-fold, as they also involve young people in trading standards’ work. I suspect for many of the youngsters who carry out test purchases, it will be the first time they’ve interacted with trading standards or given any thought to consumer protection. And who knows, it might even inspire them to take up the cause themselves, as it has done with my son (at least for the next 30 minutes until he decides astronauts are much cooler). After all, trading standards is all about safeguarding people, no matter their age.