Holter on the loose

Report that finally treats under-age drinking problem sensibly

At last, a report which talks some sense about sales of drink to under-18s. Congratulations to Professors Hopkinson and Humphreys for their research - and for highlighting issues that just don't get discussed beyond the confines of the trade press.

The most useful recommendation, as far as I am concerned, is the call for Trading Standards to adopt a uniform code of practice for test purchasing.

At present, there are some vague "guidelines" that don't amount to very much, thanks to the little technicality of local democracy. Councillors in one part of the country can (and do) take a very different approach to the issue than counterparts even a few miles away - and of course officers themselves have their own quirks.

Brandon Cook at Staffordshire Trading Standards would appear to be a beacon of good practice, working hard to ensure traders are equipped to prevent under-age sales. His team share their ideas with other local authorities, which is a start, but that's no substitute for a common set of rules governing how test purchasing is carried out. These rules ought to make it mandatory for Trading Standards to demonstrate they are working in partnership with retailers before they resort to test purchasing.

The way things stand, some very good shop staff are being hounded out of the trade and some very good businesses are being criminalised by a flawed system. There are strong arguments to suggest that makes under-age drinking more, rather than less, likely.

Why stop now?

Thresher's decision to press the pause button on its franchise programme was a little unexpected. After spending so much time and effort getting the thing off the ground, it seems odd to risk losing the momentum the project was beginning to achieve.

In particular it seems sad that Wine Rack won't get the opportunity, at least for the foreseeable future, to hav e shops run by enthusiastic managers with a financial stake in the store. The brand really needs knowledgeable, charismatic staff to achieve its potential. Just look at what's happening in the independent sector.

Those who remember Thresher's original franchising system, reviled by those who found themselves trapped in contracts that left them little chance of making money, will doubtless wonder if the 150 new franchises will find themselves in a similarly inescapable situation.

I don't think this is likely. From what we are hearing, the newly-franchised stores are performing well and Thresher has a vested interest in keeping the owners happy - partly because they provide a reliable source of revenue, but also because they are a fascinating focus group in their own right.

Who knows - by studying the new breed of franchisee, Thresher's new bosses could learn some valuable lessons about the future direction of their business.

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