Newcastle-based online dealer Heaton Catering Equipment has pledged to investigate its software solutions following a Croydon Council sting which landed the firm in court.
As part of a pilot online knife sales clampdown backed by the Home Office, the council’s trading standards team recruited a 13-year-old volunteer test purchaser to see if the teen could purchase knives and sharp implements online.
Heaton’s website was one of those investigated, with the test purchaser able to buy a Giesser meat cleaver online.
Under the Criminal Justice Act 1988 as amended by the Offensive Weapons Act 1996, it is illegal to sell a knife, knife blade, razor blade or axe to anyone under 18.
In the resulting case, heard at Croydon Magistrates’ Court, Heaton pleaded guilty to selling a knife to a child online and was subsequently fined £8,000, as well as being ordered to pay costs and a victim surcharge.
Heaton’s director of operations Gary Henry told Catering Insight: “The company accepts the decision of the court and recognised the importance of operations of this sort. As always, the company is and remains entirely supportive of the law enforcement agencies.
“It should be noted that the court accepted in mitigation that the company had taken immediate action to bolster its age verification tools online to receipt of goods to the customer and has taken active steps to implement long term changes to ensure the safe sale of age restricted items.”
He added: “As a company we regret that the Croydon Trading Standards ‘test purchase’, resulted in the selling of a knife on our online store. All of our ‘age-restricted’ products are indeed identified online, including the ‘Giesser Catering meat cleaver’ which was purchased. Despite this, the 13-year-old ‘test purchaser’ was able to buy the meat cleaver after entering a false date of birth, false name and cover address.
“Whilst all of our employees are aware of the law, in respect of selling under-age items ‘in-store’, this test purchase online has highlighted the weaknesses in our systems of someone falsely providing information, when purchasing online.
“We have carried out an investigation into current software solutions, together with our e-commerce site provider and courier service provider, with a view to ensuring an additional age-verification check is carried out upon delivery to the customer.”
Henry further advised: “A new government white paper has been produced for comment on the sale of age-restricted items online and we feel as a company the measures we are introducing will ensure we comply with this new proposed legislation and that as a company we have taken all reasonably practical steps, to ensure that age-restricted items will not fall into the wrong hands.
“It ought also to be noted, that this was the first occasion the company has appeared before a court since its inception in 1950.
“It was these matters which resulted in the more modest financial penalty than might otherwise have been the case.”
While councillor Hamida Ali, cabinet member for safer Croydon and communities commented: “In Croydon we’re taking a public health approach to tackling violence. Too many businesses are potentially endangering the lives of young people because they aren’t doing enough checks to stop children getting hold of knives online.
“Our excellent trading standards team in Croydon is leading the way nationally on tackling illegal knife sales online. Their impressive enforcement record is highlighting that online businesses are much less likely to have safeguards in place compared to store-based sales.
“I urge all businesses – whether operating in store or online – to take their responsibilities seriously and play their part in protecting our young people.”
Looking at the overall issue of underage online purchase, Alastair Graham, CEO of global age verification specialist AgeChecked said: “Whilst many companies are employing proper age verification measures, there are also numerous examples of other retailers falling short on their obligations.
“Clearly, serious questions must be raised ahead of implementation of the new Offensive Weapons Act. The law will require a new level of coordination from even the most forward-thinking retailers, both logistically – as robust age checks must take place at the point of sale and delivery – but also in terms of technology.
“Importantly, retailers must always put customer experience first and – particularly in today’s challenging business environment – they need to ensure that compliance does not come at the expense of a seamless experience for legitimate customers. These are clear challenges, but retailers must keep pace or risk regulatory penalties and reputational damage in future.”