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How Police Use Mystery Shopping to Stop Sale of Alcohol to Minors

When people hear the phrase “mystery shopping,” they often think of it as solely market research for retail businesses. We’ve talked at length about how the data revealed from mystery shoppers can help a business to change their strategy, thus increasing visibility, traffic, and profits.

SAN RAFAEL, CA - MAY 20:  Six and twelve packs...
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However, mystery shopping can also play a very important role in helping law enforcement ensure the safety of individuals in their communities. After all, isn’t the police force is essentially in the “business” of ensuring the safety of their cities or towns? Mystery shopping is simply a tool to gauge where laws are or aren’t being upheld. One area where mystery shopping can be useful is in monitoring businesses selling age-restricted goods like alcohol. Although the sale of alcoholic beverages to minors is certainly not new, the way we can approach preventing it is. Law enforcement officials hire mystery shopping companies, who use teenagers to perform alcohol purchasing assignments. In these shops, the teens simply go into a liquor store or bar and attempt to buy alcohol or get served. They then report their findings — specifically, if they were asked for an ID to prove they were of legal age. The object of these exercises is to find out if clerks or bartenders will sell alcohol to someone who clearly looks underage.

So what happens when a shop is found selling alcohol to minors? There are a few options. On the light end of the spectrum, the store or bar is given a warning and a hefty fine. However, the punishment is not so simple for those found to be performing serious breaches of license. Some business owners will have their licenses revoked and are immediately shut down. Occasionally, these stores will be allowed to re-open, but only after meeting strict criteria.

The community of Huddersfield, in the United Kingdom, used mystery shoppers to test liquor stores and pubs in the area. According to an article in the Daily Examiner, almost a third of all pubs and liquor stores in one Huddersfield area failed undercover alcohol purchases by teenagers.

While the names of the guilty shops are usually not revealed, journalists were able to obtain a list, arguing that the information was in the public interest. The Examiner published a list of shops who had failed tests in the last year and what actions they were taking to remedy the situation.

Typically, stores immediately take action to train their employees to comply with the law and prevent any mistakes from happening in the future. They work with law enforcement to show that their systems and procedures reflect the best industry practices. In this way, mystery shopping serves a very important purpose to help the police force curb underage drinking.

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