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Increase in pass rates of underage knife test purchases but “still work to do”, says independent auditor

Published: 12 June 2019 - Fiona Garcia

Despite major high street names being caught out on test purchases recently, new data suggests retailers are stepping up action to keep knives out of the hands of underage shoppers, with audit pass rates jumping from to 82% in 2018. However, online retailers saw little improvement.

Serve Legal ramped up the number of audits it carried out last year by 76% compared with 2017 figures, deploying more than 4,150 teenage mystery shoppers to stores across the UK in 2018 to buy kitchen and other household knives, to audit retailers’ performance around age checks.

The company believes the significant increase in commitment to independent auditing worked to improve retailers’ compliance rates, as 82% of Serve Legal’s underage mystery knife buyers were asked to show age identification at the point of purchase, compared to 75% in 2017, and 57% five years ago. 

Supermarkets almost doubled their knife sale audit numbers in 2018 (3,211) compared with 2017 (1,685) and achieved the highest pass rate (85%) of brick-and-mortar retailers tested. Findings revealed that homeware stores increased their audit numbers by 37% in 2018 (919) vs 2017 (672) and improved their test rates from 59% (2017) to 74% (2018). Meanwhile, London was the best-performing area of the UK, with the capital’s retailers passing 87% of knife sale tests, compared with 82% in 2017.

Serve Legal director Ed Heaver said: “Knife crime is a complex and deep-rooted problem with far-reaching consequences. No retailer, whether a major supermarket chain or a single hardware store, wants to be responsible for selling a knife to an underage person that ends up being used with tragic consequences. Against a tightening government stance on violent crime, our audit data for 2018 shows a significant improvement in retailer action to keep knives out of circulation amongst young people which we hope will continue to be an upward trend. 

“The homeware sector, which adopted independent auditing later than the supermarket sector, deserves praise for its major progress in age check compliance which has brought it far closer to supermarket standards. We hope the homeware sector will be encouraged to commit to continual improvement.”

Room for improvement
He added: “There is still work to do, however, as nearly one in five of our young mystery shoppers were sold knives without age checks last year.  Galvanised by government action and through a combination of rigorous staff training, efficient operational systems and independent auditing programmes, we’re confident that retailers will further improve their performance.”

Despite the risks associated with underage knife sales, retailers commissioned 12 times as many age check tests for alcohol (50,325) in 2018 as they did for knives and 1.8 times as many tests for cigarettes. 

While Serve Legal’s audit data for bricks-and-mortar stores highlight a much improved picture, online sales are a less positive story. Last year, 4,395 young mystery shoppers ordered age-restricted goods, including knives, from online retailers and mail order companies. Over half (51%) took delivery of their order without being asked for proof of age. Despite an increased commitment to independent auditing by online retailers – audits more than tripled in 2018 compared to 2017 (1,359) - pass rates improved only marginally from 44% in 2017 to 49% in 2018.     


The Home Office recognises online retailers’ historical poor performance in test purchases of age-restricted goods and, through the Serious Violence Strategy, calls for parity of law enforcement and prosecution for those that break the law.  On May 16, the Offensive Weapons Act received Royal Assent, bringing into force new criminal offences for those that ‘dispatch bladed products sold online to a residential address without age verification’ and for delivery companies that ‘deliver a bladed article on behalf of a seller based outside the UK to a person under 18’.

Ed Heaver said: “There has been very little improvement in compliance in recent years by online retailers and the delivery partners upon which they depend, despite rising audit numbers.  The new Offensive Weapons Act should bring clarity for those operating in the online retail space, and tougher penalties where needed.”  

As well as hefty fines or prison sentences retailers also run the risk of damage to their reputation and a dent in sales if they act irresponsibly around underage sales.  Nearly three quarters of consumers surveyed last month said that the way a retailer behaves is an important factor in their decision where to shop. More than one in ten would actively boycott a store if they found out or saw first-hand that it was selling age-restricted products to young people without checks, and more than a third would report them to the police or Trading Standards. 

In addition, more than one in five consumers felt that not checking young people’s age identification was a sign of poor staff training and management. To prevent underage sales of prohibited goods like knives, consumers would like to see retailers improve their age check systems (34%), train staff better (30%) and use independent mystery shoppers to test staff performance (27%).     

According to Serve Legal’s research, one in ten internet consumers would stop shopping with an online retailer if they found out or saw that it was selling or delivering prohibited goods without age checks. 



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