Complying with trading standards at an organisation that acquires, produces and distributes an enormous variety of consumer products is a huge challenge, and not one that can be constantly met. The evidence certainly supports that argument.
Over the course of the past few years, the UK’s leading supermarkets have faced food product and children’s toy recalls, requests for information over cold calling, all-too public complaints filed by a host of suppliers, accusations of misleading price promotions, and of course a super complaint.
The market is dominated by a few large players, each generating huge amounts of business each day. Tesco in itself lists 450,000 employees generating £56.9bn in group sales this year. The company is subject to examination by a host of enforcement and trade bodies – from the National Farmers Union (NFU), the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), the Food Standards Agency (FSA), the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) and of course each and every one of the UK’s regional trading standards authorities. Tesco tends to hear from all of them, so trying to keep on top of compliance issues as the supply chain morphs is a process that needs control.
Tim Gass is Regulatory Compliance Manager at Tesco, in addition to his recent appointment as a Non-Executive Director of CTSI. “Before joining Tesco, I hadn’t appreciated the breadth and depth of regulators that impact on the work of large multi-site retailers,” he says. “The close scrutiny perhaps comes as no surprise, but it does mean that the business takes compliance very seriously and spends a lot of resource to get things right. It is easy for outsiders to underestimate quite how much goes on. There are also technical and audit teams focusing on individual products to ensure they are legally compliant, and specialist technological and risk experts that ensure the right decisions are made.”
Making a difference
Having spent nearly 13 years working as a trading standards officer – in Cambridgeshire, Westminster and Hertfordshire – Gass wanted to do what he’d already been doing within trading standards: make a difference to consumers’ lives. One might assume that spending so much time as an enforcement officer and latterly a compliance manager would require a no-nonsense, black-and-white approach to his work, but that’s far from the case for Gass, who says his principal tool in getting things done is working with people to get positive outcomes.
“Tesco is a huge organisation and, like in life, you’ve got many thousands of people who each have different attitudes on how they should do things. In the same way I did as a trading standards officer, I have to dig into a bag of tools and use various tactics to change behaviours, ensure compliance and work to ensure the right result is achieved for the consumer. To be persuasive you have to be part of the solution rather than the guy that always says ‘no’ to new ideas.” he says.
“My approach has always been to be a facilitator and a problem solver. If I can do that role well, then people will listen to me a lot more and respect the ‘no’ when I do have to say it. It’s about being credible and being helpful.”
External events can be a catalyst for change and companies often discover a need to overhaul their policies when a problem does arise. This happened earlier this year when trading standards officers conducted research into underage knife sales. The investigation entailed 2,231 test purchases of knives in England and Wales over a 12-month period to March this year. During 15% of the total tests, retailers including Poundland, Home Bargains, Asda and Tesco failed to prevent the sale of a knife to a minor.
The issue was reported far and wide, highlighting the exposures firms need to deal with every day. For Gass, working on both sides of the regulatory divide has provided insight into how the public and private sector can work more closely together, and as a strong advocate of communication, he believes bridges must be maintained – bettered, even – to produce the best results for the consumer.
“I’ve seen some of the great work being done to try and tackle knife problems. When I look at some of the initiatives, it feels like a bit of a lost opportunity – someone like me, who has experience on both sides of the fence could, by working with the officers directly, have shared some of the lessons learned and collaboratively built an even better product,” he says.
“Perhaps the wilfully compliant companies can come out of the shadows, work with trading standards and make
the organisation succeed more effectively in the areas where objectives are very much aligned.”
Gass underlines the difference between the wilfully compliant firms and “definite rogues who have no intention of doing things right”, and asserts that the consumer will ultimately receive better goods and services if the former groups work with enforcers and rule makers, with both looking to put the customer first “as the decent thing to do”.
One of the most noteworthy things Gass has realised about working so long within trading standards – and with the various authorities – is that trading standards is a progressive, thoughtful and rational profession, which many others could perhaps learn from. Trading standards authorities don’t just consider prosecution as the only tool in their arsenal, rather looking to what lessons can be learned from each case – as well as what the best possible outcome from each resolution might be.
“Having engaged now with a lot of other regulators I’ve realised that trading standards, as a profession, has got a lot of positives about it and there is a lot that officers get very right and should be proud of,” he says. “They’re the most pragmatic and grown-up of enforcers I deal with. They’re a lot more outcome-focused, a lot less red tape-driven. It’s a very knowledgeable, highly educated group of people and because they’ve got such a wide range of things to look at they’re much more able to deal with the big-picture stuff.”
But that doesn’t mean work doesn’t need to be done within the profession, which is facing its own challenges.
Since 2009, trading standards services have seen an average reduction of almost 50% in budgets, with staff numbers falling 53% over the same period. The CTSI response to a green paper entitled ‘Modernising consumer markets’ published by the Government’s department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy in July last year puts forth suggestions that “larger, better sourced, units of delivery” should be strategised with local councils, with national enforcement bodies providing leadership.
For Gass – viewing the standards landscape on both sides of the fence – much of this makes sense, as does the green paper’s call for greater coordination to create a tighter working framework for national and regional standards bodies. It could be crucial for how trading standards operates.
“To survive and thrive the local authorities are really going to have to come together. There have been some very successful regional partnerships where you can see that things have moved on a lot,” Gass says.
“Also I think we need to see a shift of more partnerships generally across the field, to ensure the most is made of limited resources and the pools of expertise that are out there. This includes partnerships with businesses where goals and aims are shared. I now work with a lot of like-minded compliance specialists in the business world. We have exposure to new methodologies and real-life data as to which strategies work and which don’t. If trading standards professionals come together with compliance specialists working on the other side of the fence, and realise that we’re stakeholders striving for consumers and compliant businesses in the same way, great things can be achieved.”