Selling safely online

John timothy, CEO Portman Group

Since lockdown restrictions were first imposed earlier this year, online sales have surged to their highest levels in the UK. This represents a third of all retail sales in May 2020, as consumers seek to shop and social distance from the comfort and safety of home.[i] This trend has been as prevalent in alcohol as other FMCG items.

Portman Group guidance to industry on responsible sampling

Here at the Portman Group, we have taken note of the trend to sell through online platforms via home delivery services. As the lockdown came in, our Advisory Service saw an increase in the number of enquiries about how to offer product samples responsibly, to enable consumers to try new products.

We created rapid guidance to aid producers during the time on how to allow for sampling / tasting via online sales. Our guidance says that promoters should only offer samples to people who are over the age of 18, and if in doubt ask for proof of age (driving licence, passport or PASS-accredited proof of age card). If proof of age cannot be supplied, and companies have any doubts as to whether the person is over 18, then they should politely refuse to offer them a sample.

However, we recognise that as promoters increasingly turn to online sales and home delivery under the current social distancing guidelines traditional forms of age verification may not be possible.

Of course, it’s not unusual for alcohol to be delivered to people in their homes as part of their grocery shopping, and retailers will ensure that they do not sell alcohol to under-18s through their home delivery services.  However, when a product sample is offered for free, on request, and delivered to the doorstep, there’s a risk that it might be supplied to under-18s.

Whilst, most deliveries are contact-free, if companies want to send samples to consumers at home, then they should make sure that they have a reliable way to check the age of the person who receives the sample.

If they feel that they cannot do that at the moment without breaking the social distancing guidelines, we advise that these companies should delay their promotions until they are able to do it responsibly.

The wider context

This is an issue that the industry is alive to, as illustrated by the responsible way in which many companies reach out to our Advisory Service and follow Portman Group guidance when developing promotions.

Reassuringly there is little evidence that many young people are trying to obtain alcohol online, although this remains an area with limited official data. The latest Government data from Northern Ireland suggests that only 0.4% of minors who had ever had an alcoholic drink had bought alcohol online, [ii] .

It is illustrative that alcohol retailers, producers and delivery companies take the risk seriously have actively invested in systems to ensure that alcohol does not fall into minors’ hands. Yet it is an area of developing policy and the sector is busy working through potential elements to online sales to anticipate changes and respond with suitable safeguarding tools.

The alcohol industry takes the issue of combatting underage drinking seriously

At a global level, the International Alliance for Responsible Drinking is developing global standards for the online sale and delivery of alcohol as well as further measures with the major digital platforms and the use of influencers. This is part of ongoing efforts to prevent minors from seeing online alcohol marketing as well as steps to give all users the choice whether they see alcohol marketing online.[iii] Furthermore, the industry in the UK is also continuously exploring how to strengthen systems to ensure sales to minors do not take place, as can be seen in the development of new digital age verification standards by the National Proof of Age Standards Scheme (PASS).

In the UK, the nation’s retailers work through the Retail of Alcohol Standards Group. They have published guidance to help companies responsibly sell alcohol online and deliver to homes. This includes calling for delivery drivers to be trained to operate Challenge 25 – seeking age verification from anyone who looks under the age of 25.

The future

Whilst the initial evidence suggests that this issue has not proved to be a significant problem, it is reassuring that the sector continues to act responsibly and plan for the future. We can already see many in the sector actively developing measures to take advantage of new technologies to continue to ensure that alcohol isn’t sold to minors, whether that is through online sales or point of purchase.

Once again, the circumstances of COVID-19 have shone a light on consumer behaviour. It is clear that the sector takes it responsibilities to preventing under-18s from consuming alcohol seriously and ensuring that best practice and guidance keeps pace with trends.

[i] Office for National Statistics: Shopping may never be the same again, June 2020

[ii] Northern Ireland Department of Health: Young persons behaviour & attitudes survey, September 2020

[iii] IARD press release, January 2020 / IARD press release, November 2019