Research Brief #1: Why do underage sales occur?

Context: In 2002, ExxonMobil executed an Assurance of Voluntary Compliance (AVC) with 43 state attorneys general who had engaged national retail chains found to have sold tobacco products to minors. The AVC committed ExxonMobil to sweeping changes in the training, supervision and point-of-sales practices and policies to prevent underage sales of alcohol and tobacco in its 950+ Company-Operated Retail Stores (“CORS”) across the country. An award from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation allowed researchers at Brandeis University to assess the implementation and effectiveness of the ExxonMobil AVC as a public health strategy to prevent underage access to age-restricted products.  The study design included comparisons between CORS that consistently passed compliance checks, and CORS with one or more recent violations, in hopes of identifying predictors of compliance and non-compliance with underage sales laws.

Surveys were conducted with 1,225 clerks and 284 managers in 460 Exxon and Mobil CORS, following the AVC trainings and policy changes. Survey responses revealed that staff training had been very effective. Clerks correctly identified, at rates well over 90%: the trigger age for an ID check; acceptable forms of IDs; and the consequences for selling to a minor (termination). Clerks expressed at similarly high rates that they personally took preventing underage sales seriously and that they consistently checked IDs. But clerks also expressed a belief that other clerks, store managers, and managers all the way up the corporate ladder shared the same concerns and commitment to preventing underage sales. The implementation of the AVC and the change in corporate culture were very, very impressive.

Unfortunately, ExxonMobil’s well-implemented, comprehensive underage sales prevention program had no impact upon age-verification rates! In the first inspection of all CORS following the AVC, ID-checking rate for all ExxonMobil CORS was 85.4% — higher than FDA compliance rates up until February 2003 (when the US Supreme Court halted the FDA program) but less than anticipated after the recent trainings and policy changes. But in each of the following three quarters, pass rates dropped even further (70.2%, 65.3%, 60.6%). Over the subsequent two years, pass rates fluctuated between 52% and 84.5%.

Why would well-trained staff and managers who professed strong support for preventing underage sales, and who knew that a lapse in ID-checking could lead to termination, still fail to check IDs so often? To examine this question, the research team compared the knowledge, attitude, and self-reported behavior of clerks in consistently compliant CORS with those in non-compliant CORS. What we learned, however, was that the knowledge, attitudes, and behavior of clerks were the same in all stores, regardless of ID-checking performance. There were no predictors of clerk compliance / non-compliance.

The researchers came to recognize that the underlying problem was INATTENTION. Retail work is highly repetitive, and workers’ minds wander. Underage sales occur for the same reason as many industrial accidents: momentary lapses in concentration. William Chandler, the former director of alcohol law enforcement in North Carolina, aptly defined underage alcohol sales as “crimes of inattention.”

If the underlying problem is inattention, one potential remedy would be continual reinforcement of ID-checking policies and protocols. To that point, the only noticeable difference between compliant and non-compliant CORS in the ExxonMobil study was that clerks in stores that passed all their inspections expressed that “my manager is always on my back to check IDs.”

The take-away is that thorough training and explicit policies for age-verification are necessary – but not sufficient. Managers need to reinforce age-verification continually. This is as true today as when the ExxonMobil study was conducted.

For a fuller discussion of the ExxonMobil study, click here. To read the Tobacco Control journal article on the application of Consumer Protection Authority in preventing underage sales, click here.

How mystery shopper programs emerged to counter the problem of inattention is examined in Research Brief #2.

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