New guidance issued for retailers asked to join Reducing the Strength schemes

Leading trade associations have teamed up to offer guidance and support for retailers asked to strip shelves of beer and cider above a certain abv as part of a Reducing the Strength scheme.

The guidance sets out the competition law risks that arise when retailers are approached and advises shopkeepers on how to avoid breaking the law.

It also provides a list of questions retailers should ask council staff to determine whether the scheme is targeted and evidence-based, and if there is any point in joining the scheme.

The guidance is published by the Association of Convenience Stores and the Wine and Spirit Trade Association.

ACS chief executive James Lowman said: “There are undoubtedly competition risks associated with local initiative, so we want to provide retailers with the best tools to make the right decision for their business. We hope this will encourage closer relationships between local authorities and retailers to tackle alcohol harm.”

WSTA chief executive Miles Beale added: “While local initiatives begin with the best of intentions, too often they fail to take into account the very serious legal responsibilities retailers have with regards to competition. We hope that this guidance, which builds on the work of the Local Government Association and Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), will support retailers when they are approached by authorities running these initiatives.”

The guidance reminds retailers that just because a scheme is sanctioned by the government, national or local, or that discussions take place in the presence of government officials, that does not prevent a retailer from breaching competition law.

It warns that sharing business strategy with other retailers, at a meeting, and agreeing not to sell certain products, risks breaching competition law.

It says: “For example, if a local authority holds a meeting of local convenience retailers and outlines their desire for all retailers to voluntarily not sell any beer above an abv of 6.5% by a set date. They ask all the retailers in the meeting to agree to sign up to the initiative in the room with other retailers. If you find yourself in this situation you should call an end to the meeting and leave.”

It adds that retailers should also refuse to get involved if a council officer shows them a list of rivals that have agreed to sign up to the local authority’s scheme because this would amount to collusion.  

The guide also advises retailers to challenge anybody asking them to join a scheme, asking such questions as:

Has the local authority defined the problem?

Is there evidence of a high number of street drinkers in your area?

Where do the street drinkers congregate?

What products are covered by the initiative?

Does this match the products street drinkers use?

How long will you have to prepare to comply with an initiative? For example, do you need time to sell through existing stock? What other partners are involved?

Have the police and local authorities been invited to join?

What support is being provided to street drinkers? How is the initiative to be evaluated?

What impact has been made on the problem identified, and over what time is this being measured? Is there clarity on what can be achieved through intervention?

Is it designed to run in perpetuity or is there a time limit or a point where it has been deemed to have succeeded (impact on problem) or have failed? Who owns the initiative?

Is there a board or committee, or consultative mechanism in which you can get involved?

Is this governance mechanism compliant with competition law? How will the initiative communicate with participating retailers, other businesses, and the wider community?

If you are not satisfied by the answers, do not sign up. 

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