17th January 2023

All change on the high street

From illicit vapes to rip-off candy stores, the UK’s high streets have become a battleground for Trading Standards. With cost-of-living woes piling pressure on legitimate businesses and consumers, how can Trading Standards keep the amassing threats at bay?

By Helen Nugent
Freelance writer for JTS
These single-use vapes in particular are very cheap, they look a bit like highlighter pens, they have bright colours, and they are attractive to children
I don’t think that the owner of the property actually knows who is in their premises and, presumably, doesn’t really care
If those high streets are supported with genuine traders, they bring in other genuine traders, they reinvigorate the high street
Generally, the loan sharks are a last resort and they’re going to become a last resort for more people because legitimate sub-prime lending has been so regulated

The high street’s flagging fortunes have been well documented in recent years, fuelled by various financial crises, the rise in popularity of online shopping, and the allure of out-of-town retail centres. But recent statistics point to even more fundamental changes as a result of the pandemic and the worsening cost-of-living crisis.

According to research compiled for PwC by the Local Data Company, almost 9,000 chain stores disappeared from Britain’s retail map in the first six months of 2021. The 2022 figure is likely to make for even more depressing reading.

Meanwhile, a permanent change in the nation’s working and shopping habits, as well as new approaches to selling from both legitimate and illegitimate sellers, is likely to continue to pose challenges for Trading Standards – and we haven’t even mentioned the effect of Brexit and ongoing Government negotiations with the European Union.

So, what kind of issues are Trading Standards services facing on an irrevocably altered high street? A recent CTSI survey asked members ‘Considering the changing face of the high street in recent times, which of the following are causing your local Trading Standards service the most concern?’ With corner shops, general food stores, second-hand shops and fast-food takeaways all making it into the top five, none could beat vape shops as the most problematic, with 61% of the vote.

David MacKenzie, Chair of the Society of Chief Officers of Trading Standards in Scotland (SCOTSS), is all too familiar with the challenges posed by vaping outlets and their products.

“These single-use vapes in particular are very cheap, they look a bit like highlighter pens, they have bright colours, and they are attractive to children,” he says. “What particularly concerned us, and caught us unawares a bit, is that they are particularly attractive to young children. With a lot of our age-restricted product work on tobacco and cigarettes, fireworks and traditional vapes, we’re looking at sales to 16 and 17-year-olds. But we were getting good information that these were being sold to much younger children, or certainly finding their way into the hands of 12- and 13-year-olds.

“They are not meant for children and they are not meant to be a leisure product, and the long-term effects are unknown but suspected to be not entirely positive. Why does a smoking cessation device have to be these bright colours? There’s no reason for that at all. They’re clearly designed to sell to young people.”

As in other parts of the UK, vapes are everywhere, making it difficult to effectively regulate their sale and use. Then there are the attendant issues surrounding them, including their impact on the environment because they are not easy to dispose of, and many are simply discarded with no thought of recycling.

“So for all sorts of reasons, even with all the other pressures that are on us at the moment, this became quite a high priority,” says MacKenzie. “We’ve done a lot of work on this, we’ve done test purchases, we’ve issued fixed penalties, and we’ve seized a lot of these products. The other thing is that some of them have got too much nicotine in them so they’re dangerous for anyone to use.”

Tourist traps
Like MacKenzie in Scotland, Lee Older, a Senior Practitioner at Westminster City Council’s Trading Standards service, is aware of a lot of disposable vapes which are very popular with young people and often contain illegal amounts of nicotine.

He says: “The legal limit is 2% but, in London, Trading Standards are seeing anything up to 6% as well
as vapes containing well over the permitted amount of liquid. This can have health and safety issues if the device fails and leaks, as nicotine is a highly poisonous substance.”

Since November 2021, Older says that Westminster Trading Standards has seized around 24,000 vapes, mostly from outlets on Oxford Street, the main shopping thoroughfare in the capital, and also a problem area for so-called ‘American candy stores’.

Older explains: “We’ve always had a problem with the souvenir-style shops tending to sell counterfeit goods like mobile phone electrical items. Since the decline of the high street and with COVID, we’ve now seen these candy stores also opening up. The candy stores go hand-in-hand with the souvenir shops. We’re finding the directors of the souvenir shops are also the directors of the candy stores. In fact, most of the candy stores will have concessions based within them that are still selling your souvenir-type items with those counterfeit and product safety issues.”

Spurious candy stores bring their own unique challenges, particularly in terms of pricing. Failure to display prices is common practice and American-style candy is likely to cost significantly more than traditional UK sweets. Of course, this is something that unscrupulous sellers take advantage of, among other even more nefarious practices. These include adding zeros at the till, resulting in a candy bar thought to cost £10 costing the consumer £100, who only realises what has happened once they check their bank statement.

Bogus products are also prevalent. “We have found counterfeit Willy Wonka chocolate bars,” says Older. “We believe these are supermarket-own brand cheap chocolate with counterfeit wrapping on them which are then sold for £15 to £20 per bar. There is some danger associated with that if they fail to list the allergens that might be present in the bar itself. Nuts are probably the most common ingredient you’re going to find in these chocolate bars and, if you’re highly sensitive to them, this can result in death in the worst of cases.”

As with the vaping stores, prosecutions can be tricky, not least because of the behaviour of the shop owners.

“What we find in talking to the landlords of these premises, there’s a lot of subletting that goes on, not just on Oxford Street but over our entire borough. In a lot of situations, I don’t think that the owner of the property actually knows who is in their premises and, presumably, doesn’t really care. If those premises lie vacant, after a certain period of time, the property owner becomes liable for the business rates. And so a lot of them don’t mind having any old trader within the premises, even if that trader isn’t passing on any rental pay.”

Despite the obstacles, a lot of work is being done to tackle the issues in Westminster. “The work we are doing on Oxford Street is a council-wide project, it’s not just Trading Standards,” says Older. “There’s a team within the council that is looking to find short-term lets for traders that they have vetted and are going to trade legitimately. They’ll incentivise that with discounts in business rates.

“But we’ve lost some big names on Oxford Street. We lost HMV, we lost Next, we lost Debenhams. These are all big premises and, unfortunately, they’ve all been taken over by these souvenir and  candy stores. And when you go into these premises, you’re not necessarily dealing with one business. For some of them, it’s like walking into a market where they are all concessions.”

He continues: “We’re looking at closure orders going forward. Closure orders aren’t something we’ve done in the past in Westminster. The idea would be that we can establish or show to the court that, over a certain period of time, despite all of our efforts, these premises are constantly being used to sell illicit goods. That is something we’ll be looking to deploy going forward.”

Falling dominos
Closure orders are also being considered – and implemented – in Wales as a method of clamping down on rogue traders.

Judith Parry is Chair of Trading Standards Wales. She agrees that, over the past few years, the high street has changed dramatically, saying that when you lose the key players, “it’s almost like a domino effect that everyone goes from the high street”.

In areas in Wales where businesses have pulled out from the high street leaving numerous vacant premises, landlords with bills to pay are keen to fill those empty outlets. The result can be pop-up shops, but not in the traditional sense.

“We had some appear about 18 months ago and officers came back to me and said, there’s something not right there because they don’t seem to have enough stock in them to be able to trade,” says Parry. “They said, you’ve got cornflakes on the shelf or toilet rolls on the shelf, but they’re only one row deep. So, it looks like a full shelf, but they’re only one deep all the way across, and they can’t be making money.”

After speaking to neighbouring Welsh authorities, Parry and her colleagues found that this was being replicated across Wales, and across the M4 corridor predominantly. Since then, they’ve discovered that many of these premises are fronts for illegal tobacco.

“Some areas have instigated closure orders, which are being adopted by other Trading Standards officers in Wales. This follows attempts to liaise with landlords and warn them that they could be aiding and abetting illegal activities, but many landlords didn’t evict the tenants and, at times, it proved difficult to track down the landlords.”

Work is also being done in Wales to help people who are thinking about setting up their own legitimate businesses, as well as those who have already done so, particularly during COVID. The scheme helps to get them into empty premises on the high street if that’s suitable for their business model.

“It’s looking at it from a local authority point of view as well as a Trading Standards point of view in that, if those high streets are supported with genuine traders, they bring in other genuine traders, they reinvigorate the high street,” says Parry.

Sharks circling
Also in Wales, as in the rest of the UK, the changing high street has had a profound effect on the availability of legitimate credit. Elizabeth Emmons is Client Liaison Officer at Stop Loan Sharks Wales.

“People use the expression ‘loan sharks’ when what they actually mean is extortionate sub-prime, as we used to call it. That would have been payday lenders and some doorstep lenders,” she says.

“We need to make sure that people understand that they may find some sources of credit to be extortionate and possibly immoral but, if they’re legal, they’re outside our remit.”

While Emmons and the rest of the team support caps on extortionate interest rates – which have been imposed in recent years by financial regulators and the government – they are aware that if people can’t borrow from the likes of the now defunct Wonga or traditional lenders typically found on the high street, they may resort to loan sharks.

“People will always need credit,” she says. “If their credit rating is shot and they used to be able to go to these pretty shocking and extortionate high street legal lenders, they may find that those firms are going out of business. So where are those people going? The more you regulate the legal sector, the more people are probably going to go underground.”

She continues: The point about the unregulated, illegal sector, which is where we work, is that there are no rules. So you can’t negotiate.

“Generally, the loan sharks are a last resort and they’re going to become a last resort for more people because legitimate sub-prime lending has been so regulated. And then if you add to that COVID, the cost-of-living crisis, and everything else, somebody who needs £25 for school shoes for the kids, where are they going to go?”

While the interest rates levied by these shady lenders vary dramatically, they are almost always incredibly high. Trading Standards has to calculate the APR for prosecution purposes and, according to Emmons, they come in at figures like 600,000%.

In addition, prosecuting loan sharks is incredibly resource-intensive, and the victims of this kind of crime are usually frightened of engaging with authority. They often think that they’ve done something illegal or are too frightened to say anything, and are gripped by shame, fear and embarrassment.

As a result, Trading Standards services mostly learn of these issues via an agency like Citizens Advice. All told, it’s an incredibly complicated process.

However, in the 14 years that Emmons has been with her unit, every loan shark prosecuted (excepting one) has pleaded guilty. “If we get enough information from an advice agency and hopefully from talking to victims, then we can ask the magistrates for a search warrant. And once we’re in, we find that we can take their mobiles and laptops straightaway.”

No short measures
Back in Scotland, the cost-of-living crisis is making itself felt in yet another way. MacKenzie says that Trading Standards is seeing an increase in complaints about basic things, including prices of goods in supermarkets. A recent Scottish investigation found that short-weight products may be contributing to the cost-of-living crisis.

“We’re doing a project in Scotland where we’re checking prices in bigger shops and also in smaller shops,” MacKenzie says. “We’re checking that a price is being displayed at all. In normal times, that’s something we don’t like [if there isn’t a visible price] but it’s not going to be top of our list of priorities. But it matters to people at the moment.

“A related thing is some short measures. Colleagues in the West of Scotland did a project on this and found a fair bit wrong.”

The retail monitoring project sought to protect consumers from detriment when finances are stretched and prices are rising due to inflation. During the investigation, in which weight checks were carried out on packaged goods at 39 retail outlets, the majority of packs did not give cause for concern. However, 15 packers were found to have placed non-compliant goods on the market. Once the findings were made public, they attracted a lot of attention.

MacKenzie says: “I was really struck by the level of interest that the media had on that. It really brought it home to me that these are really basic fundamental things that people might think are a thing of the past. But these are absolutely brass tacks things that are important at the moment; they matter in a crisis.

“Measurement is at the heart of fair trade in goods and is a core issue for Trading Standards teams across Scotland, making sure that consumers get what they pay for and that businesses are weighing and measuring goods accurately. Against the backdrop of the current cost-of-living crisis, it is even more important that the processes and systems that should be in place are working properly, and consumers get what they pay for.”

MacKenzie believes that as the crisis worsens and people’s finances are squeezed even more, concerns over correct measurements will become more important. Combined with other emerging threats, surely that makes the work of Trading Standards more vital than ever.

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