Online alcohol retail and delivery has been growing rapidly in the United Kingdom (UK) in recent years, specially during the COVID-19 pandemic. From before the pandemic in 2017 more than a fifth (21%) of UK consumers had reportedly bought alcohol online, compared to a global average of 8%. The pandemic has accelrated this trend.
Online alcohol sales hit record figures in 2020, with the value of alcohol e-commerce increasing by 42% in just one year.
Alcohol Change UK released a report exploring the fast growing online alcohol retail and on-demand delivery sector.
Alcohol Change UK’s commissioned research questions how robust current systems are in protecting children and vulnerable adults from alcohol harm.
Age verification in online alcohol retail websites are “largely ineffectual”
Alcohol Change UK commissioned Wrexham Glyndŵr University to examine age verification in online alcohol retail websites. Their study found major weaknesses. The report concludes that current methods of age verification are “largely ineffectual”.
Online alcohol retail websites relied on simple ‘honour’ checks, which are easily deceived, or alternative forms of ‘authentication’ that can be bypassed in various ways. These include statements which must be ticked by the user to confirm they are over 18 years of age or inputting the date of birth to confirm age. Both measures can be easily decieved. Some sites use a credit card to confirm age since those below 18 years cannot legally hold credit cards. But this method can be bypassed by a minor using an adult’s credit card.
In fact this is exactly what the student participants in the Wrexham Glyndŵr University study did. A selection of statements from the participants on how they bypassed age verification on online alcohol retaile websites reveal the problems with the current self-regulation system:
- “Lied about age on collection”
- “Lied about age; no ID check”
- “Websites just asked for DOB or if you’re over 18”
- “Adding alcohol onto Mum’s weekly delivery without her realising”
- “Ordered on Amazon and ASDA Online; no ID check at purchase or delivery”
- “Amazon account was someone’s over 18; signed for by someone else”
- “Ordered off Amazon with Dad’s credit card”
Age verification for alcohol deliveries at point of delivery is a failure
Online alcohol retailers have voluntary policies that claim to not deliver alcohol to anyone under the age of 18. These services also have a ‘Challenge 25’ policy (or equivalent), meaning that anyone who reasonably looks under this age would be required to produce valid identification to verify age.
To test compliance of online alcohol retailers with their own self-regulation policies Alcohol Change UK commissioned a study with a leading third-party ID testing company. They recruited 18- and 19- year old participants who conducted 50 test purchases from 12 retailers in February 2021.
A wide range of online retailers were included in the operation, including major supermarkets, app-based delivery services and online retailers partnering with local convenience stores, to gauge levels of compliance across the sector. Each of the alcohol purchases was for delivery within two hours of ordering.
The operation found that alcohol was handed to the 18- or 19-year-old recipients at point of delivery without requesting to see a valid photo ID to verify their age, on 36 of the 50 occasions.
This is a compliance rate of just 28%. No individual retailer recorded a compliance rate of more than 50%, and two retailers recorded a 0% compliance rate.
The findings show that retailers are failing to implement their own voluntary policies to not deliver alcohol to minors.
A compliance rate as low as 28% means a systemic failure on part of the retailers to protect minors from alcohol harm.
Delivery drivers confused about their role in age verification
In 2021, Alcohol Change UK commissioned Wales-based market research consultancy Cogent Research to explore the experience of delivery drivers who workd for rapid app-based food and drink delivery services, as well as drivers working for the major supermarkets and third-party delivery companies.
The research included 12 in depth face-to-face Zoom interviews with delivery drivers from Wales. The interviews revealed confusion amongst drivers about retailers’ policies on age verification and inconsistencies in performance.
- Some drivers reported being aware of a company policy not to deliver to individuals who look under 18.
- Others were unaware of such a policy.
- Others would, on occasion, turn a blind eye to the policy regardless of being aware.
- Some drivers reported that they assumed age checks had been undertaken online and therefore checking age on the doorstep was not necessary nor needed.
Delivery drivers faced issues due to time pressure to finish their delivery and move on to the next. This clashed with fully verifying age which may take more time. Returning undelivered alcohol to the retailer could also be problematic. It could create an inconvenience and in some cases delivery drivers could get penalised financially as a consequence.
There was an alarming absence in training surrounding alcohol deliveries. Specifically for delivery drivers who were part time or delivering as an additional source of income.
However, not all delivery drivers were unaware of their responsibilities to verify age. Some did comply properly. But there was much confusion. Some drivers were poorly trained or not trained at all; ill-informed about company policy; and left to make individual judgements about whether or not to complete their alcohol delivery.
Alcohol delivery services fail to stop delivering to those who are already intoxicated
Knowingly selling alcohol or allowing alcohol to be sold to someone who is already intoxicated is illegal in the UK, as per section 141 of the Licensing Act 2003. Since it is impossible to know if someone is intoxicated at point of sale in online alcohol retail it is important to check this at point of delivery.
However, checking if someone is intoxicated at point of delivery is not happening adequately. In 2020, a polling company was commissioned by Alcohol Change UK to conduct a survey to check if alcohol was delivered to those who were already intoxicated. 491 adults in Wales were polled on their alcohol deliveries in the past 12 months.
- Over a third (37%) of respondents said that there had been occasions where they were intoxicated at home when their online order of alcohol arrived.
- Over half (53%) of those who were intoxicated on only one occasion said their alcohol order was directly handed over to them by the delivery driver, and
- 16% said it was left for them on the doorstep or in a safe place.
- Over half (52%) who were intoxicated on more than one occasion said that on at least one of those occasions their alcohol order was directly handed to them by the delivery driver, and
- a third (33%) said it was left on the doorstep or safe place.
- Only 7% of these said the delivery driver had refused to hand over the alcohol.
Alcohol Change UK notes that the survey was small in scope and therefore to exercise caution when applying results to the population. However, a similar study done in Australia recently found similar results.
Recommendations by Alcohol Change UK to improve online alcohol retail and on-demand delivery issues
The findings of research commissioned by Alcohol Change UK indicate that online alcohol retailers are failing at their own policies and commitments to not deliver to minors and adults who are already intoxicated. The proper checks are not happening at point of sale and point of delivery. Therefore, children and vulnerable people are put in greater risk to experience alcohol harm.
Alcohol Change UK recommends the following actions to resolve this problem:
- A robust training and support system being set up by retailers, to enable their delivery drivers to effectively and routinely refuse to hand over alcohol to anyone underage or showing visible signs of intoxication.
- Police and trading standards teams across England and Wales routinely undertaking test purchase operations using participants under 18 years of age, to test retailers’ adherence to the law and their own policies in not selling or delivering alcohol to minors; with consideration also given to how best to test whether alcohol is being delivered to people who are intoxicated.
- Further research examining the extent to which minors may be acquiring alcohol via online sales and home deliveries.
- Revisiting the licensing legislation in England and Wales, and the associated guidance, to ensure it provides the necessary clarity for all concerned about their roles and responsibilities when selling alcohol online and delivering it to people’s homes.