The Art of Refusal – The Portas Situation

Yesterday’s Twitter rant by the self-styled ‘Queen of Shops’ Mary Portas – In which she complains that a Game store in London refused sale to her 17 year old son on the grounds that he was not carrying valid ID – have send a wave of anger across the Interwebverse. The thing is what she is saying is both correct and incorrect at the same time. How do you enforce the law without giving poor customer service?

I have worked in entertainment retail for a few years now and almost weekly I have to refuse sale to a customer on the grounds of age verification. Sometimes it is cut and dry, a child in school uniform wanting an 18 rated game or movie. In these cases all I can do is offer to hold said product for the child’s parent/guardian – knowing full well that while legally correct, morally this is a grey area, as I am still enabling a minor to view material with a higher age rating either way – who normally will come in with a churlish attitude as if I am in the wrong for refusing sale. With people who are old enough but don’t look it you have to be vigilant, currently the law states that if I were to sell to a minor I personally am under threat of a hefty fine or a jail sentence, not to mention a criminal record, and our in-store POS clearly states that we can accept three kinds of ID as proof of age: Passport, Driving License or a Nationally recognised Age Verification Card, such as the PASS card. Now this is where we walk the fine line as retail employees. If someone comes into the shop and wants to by a 15 rated DVD but looks about twelve. If I ask for ID and am presented with a photographic ID card from the local higher education establishment – which you can only get when a post-16 student – should I accept?

Essentially what I have to do is make a decision, use this ID as confirmation, and hope that if wrong I can fall back on the fact that a) I did ask for ID and b) I felt that it was enough to prove his age. But then with Photoshop who can’t knock up a convincing piece of localised ID? The reason that the three acknowledged forms of ID are suggested is that they all come with holograms or official stamping making it nigh on impossible to fake.

In the case of Portas’ son he offered up an Oyster card.

“HIs 16 plus Oyster card. Plus the sales asst advised these games for him. The cashier then said no.”

The issue here is that the sales assistant on shop floor can easily recommend a title/game without having to ask for ID, it is fair to assume that someone who looks young would carry some – maybe even more so if your mother is a retail guru – but the cashier was perfectly right – LEGALLY – to refuse the sale. The shame is that this is being portrayed as poor customer service, that by not accepting an alternative form of ID the store has essentially committed some kind of cardinal sin.

In some respect the Oyster card *should* become accepted as a valid form of ID as it does clearly state an age/range of age and has a photo upon it, but again I stress it is not on our ‘official’ list of accepted ID forms. If you go into a bank tomorrow and attempt to use a Birth Certificate as proof of age and ID you will be refused – despite it being a very ‘official’ document. The fact is that retailers are somewhat restricted by the fact that there is no Universal ID Card in the UK. It would resolve all of these issues.

Where we get into the firing line is where we enforce these rules, with the constant threat of the sword of damacles dangling over our heads in every transaction. I want to make money, I want to sell product, and I want to give excellent customer service but not at the risk of accidentally giving product to the wrong age group.

What bugs me is that a lot of people who try to buy/rent in-store while under age don’t see it as a major issue. When I was younger you would have to grow a bit of a ‘tash, memorise a date of birth, borrowing some of your dad’s aftershave and trying to talk in a deeper voice. Nowadays my nine year old son could order ‘I Spit On Your Grave’ via with little issue. Sure he’d need bank details, but my wife tends to have them saved to her account. This has resulted in a certain arrogance. I am confident, I ask so… I get?

The other sticking point we have to contend with for the moment are the PEGI ratings – the Pan European Game Information – which were once optional extras to support the legally binding BBFC rating. After Dr Byron’s investigation into the effects of media on minors it was agreed that the PEGI system would be rolled out to be law. My company takes the PEGI recommendations as law. Regardless.

This is a recipe for an argument if your customer chooses to not accept the PEGI system.

Take Mass Effect on the 360.

BBFC Rating: 12

PEGI Rating: 18

Now ‘legally’ – for the moment – it is fine to sell the game to a thirteen year old minor, but my company rightly goes by the highest rating option, whereas we will restrict sale of product on the basis of the highest available rating.  This can cause a confrontation if the person looking to buy wants to complain about it being a legal ’12’ not a recommended ’18’.

And sadly both parties are correct.

Until the PEGI system becomes law we are fighting a battle against a steady flow of complaints and disgruntled customers.

This is not ideal.

I have adopted a way of dealing with these customers:

1) Ask customer for ID – be jovial, mention the Think 21/Challenge 25 scheme and how it is possibly flattering to have been asked. Nothing like a bit of self-deprication to lighten the situation.

2) Make an effort to not become authoritarian. You are a person, the customer is a person. Treat things as such.

3) Offer to hold product until either ID can be provided – it is farcical to expect foot traffic customers to carry a passport at all times – or suggest that the customer could get someone else to purchase/rent.

4) NEVER use it as a tool of empowerment.

5) Finally remember this, the law is law. Your hands are tied, legally. It is too big a risk to just ‘assume’ that you know best, that the school girl in front of you may be in fancy dress etc…

It’s about attitude.

Now I don’t doubt that Portas is blowing a normal situation out of all proportion because of ‘who’ she is, but I often face the wrath of an angry parent after refusing sale to a minor. I’ve had people complain that they had to get out of their car and walk ten metres to the shop because they sent primary school age kids to buy 18 rated games for them. I even had, at one point, a customer exclaim that it is my job to sell products and not to think. The issues of the master/servant situation present in most retail environments undermines the effective banter required to come to a fair and acceptable resolution for any situation.

What saddened me most was Portas’ impulsive rant on Twitter in terms of ensuring that the employee in question is put at the centre of a debate. They were doing their job, by the book. This shouldn’t be looked down upon. What is also concerning is Portas’ clear opnion on the pointlessness of age ratings:

“We are not talking drink, but a 15plus video!”


Nice to see that a legally binding age system can be look upon with disdain by someone with significant authority when it comes to retail. This is exactly what bothers gamers who are responsible. Clearly Portas doesn’t have issue with her children playing any game, regardless of age, given that she differentiates alcohol law and game/movie license law. There is no difference. No difference at all.

As I was writing this I did look into things a bit more and saw this very positive comment from the CEO of Game Ian Shepherd:

@IanAShepherd Fair shout; I’d hate to see someone get in trouble for protecting the GAME & the industry from more controversy is all..
@APZonerunner won’t happen. Age verification is in our DNA and vital to the industry. Team in stores are brilliant at it too.

Which ultimately is all that matters.

Mary Portas is simply a ‘celebrity’ version of every parent I’ve had dealings with in terms of retail and age verification. For every understanding parent there is someone who has a bug to bear, an axe to grind and a bee in their bonnet. These people make retail employees feel like crap.

So if you are the sort of person who thinks that your children should play adult focussed games, buy them yourself. Don’t expect someone to risk their job for you. And if your children are of a certain age, get them an ID card and save everyone the hassle and embarrassment.

Mary Portas may be paid to make retail a fairer place for all, but on this occasion I can safely say that she can fuck right off, indignant old hag.



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