Supermarket representatives have dismissed the idea that pre-loading is a problem the off-trade needs to tackle, and urged the government to encourage every retailer to focus on the responsible retailing of alcohol.

Representatives from Sainsbury’s, Waitrose and Ocado were giving evidence to a select committee review of  the Licensing Act 2003.

The three were asked if they felt they should take some responsibility for pre-loading, on the basis that more alcohol is now bought from the off-trade than the on-trade, and because prices are considerably cheaper.

James Broadhurst-Brown, manager, regulatory affairs and trading law at Waitrose, said: “It is very difficult at the point of sale to know why people are buying alcohol.”

Nick Grant, head of legal services at Sainsbury’s agreed that while all three are keen to be responsible in how they sell alcohol, it would be difficult to translate this concern into any form of policy.  

“We take a lot of care in how we sell but you are talking about a lawful sale of alcohol to an individual. If there are ideas on how to do things differently then we can work with these. We have an open mind on this.”

One suggestion, he said, is that the government should “shine a light” on those retailers that are not selling alcohol responsibly.

“My ambition in the responsible retailing of alcohol is that every shop should be responsible, so concepts such as Think 25 [Sainsbury’s version of Challenge 25] should have universal coverage, for example.

“If there is energy to be had then that is what I urge you to look at: how do we spread best practice?

“It is voluntary at the moment but what I am suggesting is that we build on voluntary work that has taken place and use that to shine a light on those retailers that are not doing it. If they don’t then you should have a look at license removal.”

All three representatives highlighted the issue of education as being a better solution to tackle issues around excessive drinking.

Grant said: “We help small shops with Think 25, in fact all the supermarkets which are part of CAP (Community Alcohol Partnership) do this.”

Mark Bentley, customer operations director at Ocado, added: “We will ask our customers to prove that they are over 18 when we deliver their shopping, and if they don’t then all the age-related items are removed from their basket.”

Grant noted that Sainsbury’s has a similar system. “Our system is based around the Think 25 on the doorstep. If the driver is not satisfied then they remove the entire shop; it is the simplest way for us to do it.”

As part of the discussion the issue of Scotland was raised, in relation to its impending minimum unit price (MUP) legislation.

The three said they “remained skeptical that a whole population approach would work”.