Those with a lot to booze

An off-licence manager’s job is not an easy one. Not only must they avoid selling to drunks, but they need be wise to the tricks of under-agers.

SBHD: An off-licence manager’s job is not an easy one. Not only must they avoid selling to drunks, but they need be wise to the tricks of under-agers.

Threats and intimidation, malicious lies and drunken abuse, aggressive confrontation and persistent theft attempts are just some of the everyday problems suffered by off-licence folk as they top up the drinking public.

While all retailers and service industry employees have horror stories about dealing with the public – hairdressers attacked with their own clippers, building society staff held up with fearsome-looking cucumbers – there can be few more alarming jobs than dealing with consumers who have hit the consumption button a little too hard.

For while publicans generally have staff or even other customers to help them ward off aggression when the “last orders” bell rings, off-licence personnel – whose very stock can be used against them – are very much on their own when trouble flares.

Obliged both to sell large quantities of an intoxicating drug, and then to ensure that their customer shows no outward sign of intoxication outside the privacy of their own home, the off-licence manager must sometimes feel like turning that cucumber on themselves.

A new video “Seeing Off Trouble”, put out for the trade by the Portman Group (launched six years ago by eight of the UK’s largest drinks companies as part of an initiative to promote sensible drinking), highlights the problems off-licence staff face from customers. Many under-age drinkers have devised sneaky ways to get their supplies. While some of them use a decoy system to distract attention from their friends as they stuff cans of beer and cider into bags, others intimidate genuine customers into collecting drink on their behalf.

The video shows how one harassed off-licence manager is kept busy ringing up endless packets of sweets and crisps for one under-age couple, while another pair cram bottles into their coats.

On this occasion, the manager apprehends the thief at the door and relieves her of the stolen booty. But other managers on the video admit it would be counter-productive to desert a full till to retrieve a couple of bottles of beer.

Much of the petty crime goes unpunished.

In another reconstruction, a worried-looking man agrees to buy six cans of extra-strength lager for a group of under-age lads outside the off-licence. Although clearly reluctant to do so, he is no doubt unnerved by the menacing way in which three of the gang members are already circling his car.

In a third dramatisation, a drunk stages a kamikaze raid on an off-licence, swipes a bottle close to the door and makes his escape before the manager even looks up.

But the nastiest reconstruction of all shows a loud, bullying yob come in to the shop merely to shout his mouth off about how his under-age brother was allegedly mistreated by the manager. Amid the threats, it emerges that the 16-year-old brother attempted to buy alcohol and was politely turned away by the manager. But in his own version of events the brother had been sworn at and insulted even though he was “only after a packet of crisps”. The cool-headed manager refuses to rise to the bait, but succeeds in explaining that in refusing to serve his brother with alcohol he was obeying the law. At this point, a rather crushed loud-mouth leaves the shop with all the attitude of a fieldmouse with toothache.

“It’s best not to argue, not when you’ve got a shop full of bottles,” says the manager.

After watching 25 minutes of off-licence employees being generally abused and mistreated by members of the public – mostly for fulfilling their legal obligations not to serve the under-age or drunks – it is difficult not to sympathise. After all, as a former Saturday girl in a shoe shop, where the customers invariably behaved like Ugly Sisters after a session with Cinderella’s slipper, I am only too well aware of how nasty the public can be when they don’t get their own way.

Yet I could not help noticing that one off-licence manager in particular, a rather vertically challenged one it must be said, appeared to revel in conflict with customers. It’s as though in his efforts to become the least-bending, most finger-waving off-licence personage since the Quakers overran Nottingham, he has declared himself at war with the whole of humankind. “I saw what went on outside, you’re buying drink for those lads aren’t you?” he tells the reluctant stooge of the under-agers, who wants only to buy his bottle of Beaujolais and drive away from the place in peace.

And having virtually frog-marched the poor man out of the shop, after first relieving him of the lads’ money, he delivers a lecture to the rather drippy-looking gang leader about how next time he’ll call the police, circulate his description and call the police again.

He is equally brusque with some teenagers who attempt to buy drink without ID. Watching them browse, with an expression far from friendly, he waits until all three come up to the counter with their spoils before delivering his lecture about under-age drinking and ID cards. Not surprisingly, he gets nothing but abuse for his trouble.

Rather than risking confrontation, it would have been so much easier to have had a quiet word with the under-agers as soon as they entered the premises, thus saving them the embarrassment of being refused service and him the ugly verbal response.

With the genuine drunk he’s a little less imperious. The manager tells a man he’s already “had far too much”, before unceremoniously shutting the door on him. But then, all the off-licence managers on the video appear to have a soft spot for drunks, even if they appear to hate teenagers.

In the Sussex village where I now live the only place that serves drink aside from the village hall – where the short mat bowls team is known to enjoy a tipple after tournaments – is the local Spar supermarket.

While the odd under-age teenager does occasionally try it on, so close-knit is the local community that the Spar staff keep youngsters’ dates-of-birth in their heads – along with the bus timetables.

But does the system stop youths from drinking? Hardly. Instead of buying their drink locally, the village youths drive to the outlying supermarkets, where they are far less likely to be challenged.

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