WEST BRIDGEWATER, Mass. -- Shaw's Supermarkets is moving forward with a plan to card all customers purchasing alcohol and tobacco products, regardless of age or appearance.
The chain, which operates in all six New England states, implemented the policy late last month in five states, pulled back in two states for legal reasons, and now uses it in Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island, said Bernie Rogan, spokesman. Expansion to New Hampshire, Vermont and Maine is under study and discussion, he said.
"I think it has been widely received without too much problem. There have been a few complaints here and there, but no deluge of concern," Rogan said. Shaw's, a subsidiary of J Sainsbury of London, has a total of 185 stores, including 36 in Massachusetts operating under the Star Market banner.
The policy is most fully engaged in Connecticut, where all stores sell beer and wine along with tobacco. The retailer is limited by law in Massachusetts to only three liquor licenses, so only three stores in that state sell beer and wine. In Rhode Island, no grocery stores sell alcoholic beverages, he said.
The procedure was implemented in New Hampshire and Vermont at the same time, but dropped about a week later. It was never initiated in Maine. New Hampshire and Maine have laws that could prevent the retailer from checking the IDs of all buyers of alcohol and tobacco, he said.
"There are some laws on the books that need some further discussion and interpretation, so we elected not to do it up there," Rogan said.
Vermont is being held back for administrative reasons, since it is managed along with the other two northern New England states, he said.
Sales have not been affected by the new policy, Rogan said. "By and large, the action we have taken has been rather benign and we have heard from organizations like MADD [Mothers Against Drunk Driving] who have commended us for it," he said.
No incidents precipitated this policy, Rogan said. "It's not in response to getting beaten up on this issue. It's very much proactive," he said.
Jerry Langlais, administrator, Liquor Control Commission of the State of Connecticut, Hartford, confirmed that there have been no recent compliance issues with Shaw's.
However, the "stings" that many governments now run to catch retailers selling alcohol or tobacco to underage customers were a factor, Rogan said. Although Shaw's does "very well" in dealing with these operations and Rogan acknowledged the need for them, "it is a constant problem for us because our associates may be fooled sometimes or they may not check." Shaw's has a "one-strike-and-you're-out" rule on such sales to minors, he said. "Now by carding everyone, it seems to make life easier."
The retailer also has a point-of-sale system that asks for the date-of-birth from a customer purchasing an alcohol or tobacco product, but this can be overridden.
But many grocery retailers are getting fed up with these stings, said Grace Nome, president, Connecticut Food Association, Hartford. "With everyone on this bandwagon against selling to minors, it is getting very difficult for our stores. So the retailers are saying, 'We will just card everybody,"' she said.
It could not be determined how unique Shaw's policy is among supermarkets, although none of the sources contacted for this story knew specifically of any other chains that do it.
"It's not an isolated thing" among restaurants, bars and liquor stores, said Debra Leach, executive director, National Licensed Beverage Association, Alexandria, Va. "It's a good policy because it eliminates age discrimination and it takes the guesswork away from the cashier." She recalled a poster that demonstrated how easily a teenage girl could change her appearance so she looked 25 or 30 years old.
SN called a random number of Shaw's stores to gauge reaction to the new policy. While stores in New Hampshire and Vermont reported strong complaints from alcohol and tobacco customers, the reaction in Connecticut has not been that harsh.
"A lot of people don't like it, but many just don't care," said an employee at the Shaw's store in Clinton. "Actually the reaction hasn't been that bad," noted a Bristol worker. "Usually people are OK with it, although some people have a problem with it," added an employee in Enfield.
The story was different in a Manchester store. "We don't have a lot of happy troupers, but we have to do what they have asked us to do," said an employee there. "It's for everybody's safety anyway," added a worker in New Haven.
Associates in the New Hampshire and Vermont stores were under the impression that the policy was stopped in their states because of the customer complaints. For example, at the Shaw's Concord, N.H., an employee confirmed that the chain had tried the new policy, but "we decided not to go through with it because of the complaints." And in Colchester, Vt., a worker said, "We got so many complaints that we are not doing it." Added an employee in Montpelier, Vt., "We weren't having any trouble carding."
From a Shaw's store in Bangor, Maine, an employee reported, "They were going to change it, but they decided to stick with the old policy. It never went through."
Beer industry associations are supportive of policies to card all customers. "Our position has always been that we encourage whatever can be done in terms of reducing underage drinking and reducing alcoholic-related driving," said Patrick Sullivan, executive director, Connecticut Beer Wholesalers Association, Hartford. "We would never put ourselves in a position of second-guessing anyone's efforts to control those things," he said.
"It's not a bad standard to check everybody, there's no question about that," said Jeff Becker, president of the Beer Institute, Washington, D.C. "The only people who are going to be offended by it are the ones who should not be buying the products anyway. So I don't see it as necessarily a bad thing.
"Our general position is that retailers need to do whatever they can to ensure that they are making a legal sale. If they decide that it is a good idea to check everybody, more power to them," Becker said.
"It's one way of ensuring that, if it's the policy for all employees to check people, they are not going to forget," said Tamara Mlynarczyk, spokeswoman, National Beer Wholesalers Association, Alexandria, Va. "Hopefully, then, nobody will slip through the system even if it seems like overkill to ask somebody who has gray hair and wrinkles to show their identification."