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One in six retailers also failed underage test purchases for alcohol, according to Serve Legal

One in four teenage mystery shoppers were able to buy knives unchallenged from high street retailers and one in six were sold alcohol, according to new research.

It comes despite prominent retailers extending their ‘Challenge 25’ or ‘Think 21’ polices on alcohol sales to knives under a voluntary government scheme.

According to retail age check company Serve Legal, which conducted the research, it shows a failure of retailers to clamp down on the problem of underage sales.

Mystery shoppers aged 18 or 19 were sold a knife unchallenged in 26% of 2,350 attempts in 2017. It’s a percentage point higher than in 2016, when the figure was 25%, and barely an improvement on 2009’s 27%, according to the data.

The mystery shoppers bought alcohol unchallenged in 17% of attempts.

Discounters showed the biggest improvement on alcohol and the best performance compared to other retailers, with mystery shoppers sold products unchallenged in 15% of attempts, down from 17% in 2016.

Petrol stations performed the worst at 19% while supermarkets managed 16% and convenience stores 18%, both unchanged from the previous year.

On knives, homeware and DIY stores were the worst on the high street, selling to four in 10 (41%) of mystery shoppers without requesting age identification. Supermarkets managed 21%.

Geographically, London performed best on knives at 18% and Scotland and Northern Ireland worst at 41% each.

Retailers sold tobacco without asking for proof of age in 20% of mystery shops, with supermarkets doing best at 16%. Geographically, London performed worst for tobacco at 40% while the south west did best at 21%.

Retailers sold e-cigarettes to 30% of mystery shoppers without asking for ID, up from 9% in 2015, suggesting confusion about the products being restricted to over 18s, according to Serve Legal.

Online retailers did worst of all. In 1,600 tests, 59% of mystery shoppers were handed age-restricted products including knives on doorsteps.

Retailer commitment to alcohol sale testing also fell for the third year running according to Serve Legal, with overall test numbers dropping 13% from 47,550 in 2014 to 41,227 in 2017.

“Despite the intentions of the well established Challenge 21/25 schemes, our latest data shows there is complacency among retailers when it comes to compliance,” said Serve Legal director Ed Heaver.

“Those that believe responsible retailing doesn’t matter to the bottom line are misinformed. Failure to invest in staff training, performance and processes around age identification checks puts any retailer at risk of selling alcohol to children and to the penalties of being caught doing so.”

He added: “Against a backdrop of rising knife crime, news headlines about school-age victims and perpetrators are shockingly frequent. Our latest retail test data reveal that, despite the principles of the government’s voluntary agreement on underage sales - which many retailers have agreed to adhere to - complacency on the high street could well be contributing to a deadly societal problem, with knives being sold to young people in plain sight.”