By Scott Orr
Last fall, hundreds of convenience stores and other retailers that sell tobacco began receiving correspondence from the Food and Drug Administration €" and they weren€™t Christmas cards. For example, "You or one of your employees sold a package of Newport Box cigarettes to a minor on September 16, 2011," the FDA wrote in a December letter to the owners of a market in Chicago.
The letter went on to demand the business provide a plan to correct the violation, or face a raft of penalties that could include "a civil money penalty, no-tobacco-sale order, seizure, and/or injunction."
For now, the FDA is content to send warning letters to violators, but that could change at any time if tobacco retailers don€™t get serious about training their workers on when, and how, to say no.
No one in the retail sector wants to sell tobacco products to minors, but how do operators prevent their employees from making bad decisions at the moment of retail truth? How do you ensure that frontline staff asks for proof of age, inspects that identification closely, and refuses sales to customers who fail the test? How do you make sure they get it right every single time?
The answer lies in employee education. For 17 years now the nonprofit We Card Program has been the gold standard for tobacco sales training, which offers everything from signage and tip sheets to advanced online training for frontline employees and managers.
"We€™ve been backers of the We Card approach from the beginning. We€™ve seen We Card expand and improve over the years and today, with the FDA taking an aggressive approach to enforcement, it makes more sense than ever to make sure employees are well trained," said Lyle Beckwith, NACS senior vice president, government relations.
"When employees know how to prevent minors from buying tobacco products, it€™s a win for everyone €" the employee, the business, public health, even the kid who is denied a pack of smokes," Beckwith added.
By now, everyone in the convenience store sector should know about We Card, if not for its award-winning training, then certainly for its ubiquitous yellow and red logo that warns: "Under 18, No Tobacco. We Card." But with the FDA placing tobacco retailers at the center of its new enforcement regime, We Card is a more important resource than ever.
FDA has conducted more than 32,000 inspections of retail stores and issued some 1,500 warning letters to violators. More recently, the FDA announced civil money penalties would be pursued for repeat violators. And what retailers may not know is that an FDA-compliant training program like We Card can lessen fines and penalties.
Since tobacco sales make up one-third of in-store sales at convenience stores, the issue could hardly be more crucial. Still, according to a 2008 survey by We Card, retailers who offered their own training spent as little as 15 minutes teaching each worker about tobacco sales rules €" We Card€™s online training takes a full hour.
Last year was a watershed for the We Card program, bringing the launch of updates to include the latest requirements from the FDA, a new training course for store managers, and a retraining regime aimed at meeting the FDA€™s refresher training mandate.
We Card€™s state-of-the-art online training program seeks to leverage the advantages of interactive online technologies, relying on a series of game-like scenarios in which trainees try to identify underage consumers from photographic line-ups or select flaws in representations of ID cards.
To date nearly 300,000 owners, managers, and frontline employees have received We Card training and the program has held more than 2,100 classroom training sessions in all 50 states. Its backers have included governors, state attorneys general, state government agencies, law enforcement agencies and others.
While We Card caught on among conscientious retailers from the beginning, the dawn of FDA regulation in 2010 has really brought home the need for an advanced training protocol.
"When we took a look at the FDA fines and penalties, we knew our employees needed to be as prepared as possible to comply with the new federal tobacco law," said David Tooley, vice president at Tooley Oil Company, which runs convenience stores at its gas stations in and around Sacramento.
Tooley said teaching employees the significance of the tobacco retailing regulations, how to verify the age of tobacco buyer and how to say "no" when appropriate is far too important to be left to on-the-job training.
"Not only does the course explain the laws and regulations, it also provides great tools to help team members refuse tobacco sales when necessary in a non-confrontational manner. This course allows them to practice these skills before being behind the counter. This is extremely important to our company because we don€™t want our employees learning responsible retailing on the job," he said.
Jodi Smith, human resource manager at Dara€™s Fast Lane, a chain of convenience stores in Kansas, agreed: "We enforce completion of the online training on day one; before the employee steps foot into the store," Smith said.
We Card is the only national training program to have included FDA€™s recommendations for content, curriculum, extensive record keeping, official government health message and more. So training employees using We Card can help businesses demonstrate they are serious about preventing underage customers from gaining access to tobacco and could mean lower FDA fines and penalties if infractions do occur.
But it€™s not just a focus on federal regulation that sets We Card apart. We Card also offers customized training that incorporates the unique laws and regulations of each state. In addition, We Card provides aids and tools such as the age of purchase calendar and a mystery shopping service called ID Check-Up.
It was in 1995 that retailers, representatives of national and state associations, manufacturers and others began looking for ways to prevent the sale of tobacco to minors. Government reports indicated that sales to minors were as high as 40%. It became clear that one of the best ways to stop underage sales was to prevent them at the point of sale.
Teaching convenience store staff how to control that critical interaction with would-be tobacco purchasers became the goal of the newly formed alliance called the Coalition for Responsible Tobacco Retailing. Soon, the We Card program was born.
In the early days, We Card was a decidedly low-tech enterprise, at least by today€™s standards.
"Back then, we had lots of discussions about whether or not retailers even had computers that could be used for training," said Read deButts, then We Card€™s president. "We were doing training in the backroom and felt lucky to have a video tape player so we could show role-playing situations," he added.
As the program matured, its backers combined research on adult learning theory and their own retail training experience to arrive at four core components vital to an effective tobacco retailer training program.
Educational content is the foundation for any training. Explaining key subjects to retail employees in a way that helps those employees better understand why the information is important and immediately relevant to their job is a central tenet of adult learning theory.
Training methods are critical to enhancing the process that adults go through to learn new knowledge and skill sets. Emphasis on experiential learning and problem solving are two additional tenets of adult learning.
In-store support helps strengthen frontline employee defenses with additional tools and resources. Access to a diverse selection of point-of-sale tools can make in-store prevention efforts that much stronger.
Ongoing supervision is vital to reinforcing company policies and practices as well as reminding employees of the need to constantly remain vigilant. Retail store management should seek to reinforce positive behavior through incentives and make sure there are consequences for failure.
In 2007 and 2008, We Card undertook a first-of-its-kind study to establish a clear link between training and higher carding rates, using of-age "mystery shoppers" to secretly attempt purchases of tobacco products at 180 convenience stores. The study found that employees trained using We Card learning techniques were far more likely to card young-looking adults than those who were not trained.
Employee training transcended other factors that traditionally have been thought to influence the outcome of tobacco purchase attempts by minors, including the type of tobacco product sought, the time of day purchase attempts were made and whether or not other items were purchased alongside a request for tobacco products.
Training improved carding rates in both corporate and independently owned stores, though workers in corporate shops were more likely to card young consumers both before and after training.
"We€™ve integrated research and real-world practices from a wide variety of sources and developed a comprehensive program that has been proven successful over many years. And we are constantly looking for ways to improve and update our services," said Doug Anderson, president of The We Card Program.
For years, resourceful retail managers have adapted principles learned from We Card to train their employees to handle sales of other restricted products, such as alcohol and lottery tickets. Not surprisingly, retail desire for a comprehensive program covering all age-restricted products is strong. So don€™t be surprised to see additional age-restricted training and product services from We Card in the near future.
Scott Orr is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.