#nofilter: Sales supervision creates the rules for alcohol sales

Why does Alko ask young shoppers for ID or turn away intoxicated customers? Why do we need to supervise alcohol sales at all? And what does it feel like from the staff’s perspective? Alko salespeople Laura Kujansuu, Maarit Lilja and Jerry Karhunen discuss sales supervision for alcoholic beverages, that is, themes related to age-limit checks and cases of suspected intoxication or handovers.

How do you feel about alcohol sales supervision?

Laura: In Alko stores, you encounter the contradictions surrounding alcohol on a daily basis. One customer may be seeking recommendations for one of the most important celebrations of their life, while the next may come in to pick up their daily dose of alcohol with shaking hands. Finnish alcohol culture is in the midst of change. Although Finns are quickly adopting European wine culture, alcohol is still mainly regarded as an intoxicant and will continue to be for some time.  Sales supervision creates a set of shared rules that can be used to remind people of age limits and the dangers associated with alcohol. Customers are talking about this a lot right now, that is, before and after alcohol tax increases and legislative amendments.

Maarit: I think sales supervision is a given. No matter how much we talk about ‘Europeanisation’, I think the need for sales supervision probably stems from Finnish alcohol culture, that is, drinking to get drunk. On the other hand, what is ‘European drinking culture’? Alcohol is a problem in other countries, too. And as long as people abuse alcohol, it’s also a good idea to have sales supervision. However, it is good that alcohol is no longer as taboo or forbidden as it once was. That if anything reduces alcohol abuse, as testing boundaries does not necessarily need to involve alcohol in the way it once did. Of course, you’ll still encounter that ‘who can drink the most’ competitive spirit. But luckily that trend is turning: people are looking for ‘less and better quality’ rather than ‘trashed and fast’.

How do customers feel about sales supervision?

Laura: I think sales supervision is an essential aspect of customer service, and in a good way. We provide the best customer service in Finland, which naturally means engaging in the responsible sale of alcohol, which is no ordinary product. Age-limit checks are highly appreciated, and we mostly receive positive feedback about them. Refusing to sell alcohol to intoxicated customers is also looked upon favourably.

Maarit: Young people used to feel very insulted when asked to show ID – now I’m happily surprised by the number of people who show ID without being asked. Sales supervision is such a basic aspect of our work that you don’t always think about it that deeply. 

Jerry: Sales supervision is one of the basic aspects of working in Alko stores, both at the cash register and when assisting customers. You have to consider the customer’s age and condition, and even more so at the register. Sometimes it’s best to turn an obviously intoxicated customer away as soon as they step through the door. These days, customers are aware of what sales supervision involves, and many young shoppers show their ID without being asked. Both customers and sales staff appreciate sales supervision.

What kind of induction do new sales staff receive?

Jerry: New sales staff learn the basics by completing an online course in sales supervision. The real learning happens when they start working in the store and at the register. More experienced salespeople will offer tips and advice, but real learning can only happen by taking a confident and proactive approach.

You can pick up the basic information and skills quickly, but you also need to learn to read people. For example, when determining whether a customer is under the influence of alcohol or not, as it affects people in slightly different ways. And if an adult is out shopping with a young person, this also raises questions, but such situations are handled as they are in the sales supervision of other products. Sales staff usually discuss such things amongst themselves in advance, which is a great help for less-experienced employees in particular. Alko has a great induction culture for new staff. Basic training is provided, but more experienced staff always give help and advice.

Maarit: A lot of these things are picked up through experience – induction gives you tools and a good starting point, but everyone will take their own time to process these skills.

Is it more difficult for a younger salesperson to ask for ID or refuse a sale?

Maarit: It can sometimes be difficult even when you’re a bit older. Now that the age limit is thirty, you wonder whether it’s necessary to ask customers with children for ID. However, many customers are often delighted to have been thought younger than they are.  

Laura: Even more experienced staff often encounter situations in which they’ve incorrectly estimated a customer’s age. You don’t have a lot of time to decide whether or not to ask for ID, so you have to go on first impressions, regardless of what the customer is wearing – beanie, scarf or make-up.

 Jerry: Of course, younger staff often have less experience, which can sometimes cause awkward situations, but you can handle any situation with the right attitude. Experience makes it easier to choose the correct words and procedures in certain situations that could be difficult for a younger salesperson.

What’s the most difficult aspect of sales supervision?

Laura: Confirming a suspected case of intoxication can sometimes be a very sensitive issue. You have to choose your words very carefully, as it might be a question of an illness or disability. And particularly when the store is busy or there’s a queue at the register, as other customers may overhear. I’ve made it easier by thinking of some neutral phrases to use in advance, and also some humour. The only thing you can do is trust in your own knowledge of human nature, and put on your silk gloves.

Choosing the right way to frame your questions is also difficult in cases of suspected handovers. If a young customer is buying large volumes of strong liquor, you want to ask the reason for it, and the same goes when an adult and young person are out shopping together. It’s impossible to know what’s going to happen outside the store, but you still think about it.

Maarit: It’s relatively easy to spot a drunken customer, but those under the influence of medication or drugs are a different thing altogether. I’ve encountered fewer such customers, and in my experience they may act far more unpredictably than people under the influence of alcohol.

Jerry: Suspected handovers are, of course, difficult. For example, when an adult and young person are shopping together or a young person is buying a large volume of alcohol.  Sometimes parents don’t like it when we ask whether the drinks in question are for them or for the young people. Then we need to ask the buyer, who he/she is buying the drinks for.   

How do threatening situations arise and how do you deal with them?

Laura: Most threatening situations involve intoxicated customers. It always helps to be able to predict such incidents, as it’s easier to turn someone away at the door than at the register. I work in a large store, where there are always several staff members present. Support from your colleagues is invaluable in such situations. We report all threatening situations that take place at Alko, even minor incidents. Safety is vital, as we’re surrounded by glass bottles full of alcohol.

Maarit: In addition to the intoxicated customers mentioned by Laura, other things can also spark off very heated reactions from customers. You can usually deal with such situations by patiently listening to the customer’s opinion and, when possible, going along with them. Some situations can suddenly get very unpleasant, and then you often wonder where to draw the line and what you can say – and what’s permissible to say – to the customer. Sometimes, when a customer gets a bit too friendly, you wonder how to deal with the situation without anybody losing face. If you’re working in customer service, you can’t just bluntly say ‘paws off, that’s inappropriate!’

Jerry: Incidents involving shoplifting can also get threatening. The best way to calm things down is to talk to the customer in a calm manner. Even the more aggressive customers will usually calm down in the presence of two or more salespeople. We discuss these situations afterwards with our supervisor and the other staff – how it went and how it could have been handled better. And threatening incidents are also reported.

What kinds of situations can arise when you encounter a customer with, for example, dementia or a speech disorder?

Laura: Misunderstandings and long awkward silences have occurred. However, we can usually find a shared language and Alko sales staff are tenacious when it comes to finding solutions to problems Helping customers is in our DNA. We spend time evaluating the customer’s needs, and it helps to listen carefully and calmly.  Alko’s customer service always takes different customer groups into consideration, and we know that they all have individual needs. Familiarising ourselves with the aforementioned customer groups through training would definitely help us to understand them better and provide better service. 

Maarit: Tactfulness and listening skills are vital when serving a customer with dementia or a speech disorder. I don’t find it particularly challenging, as in principle both involve regular contact with customers.

Jerry: It can sometimes be difficult to get on the same wavelength with someone who has a speech or hearing disorder, but we’ll usually find a way. For example, I might ask the customer to write down what they would like.

Do you ever encounter situations in which you would like to refuse a sale even though there are no grounds to do so?

Laura: I’ve had conversations with certain customers, particularly regulars. I’m always ready to discuss alcohol use – of course, at the customer’s initiative. Discussions with customers buying wine are different to those with a customer who is buying several bottles of spirits. If you sense that someone is feeling guilty about their drinking, they’re already processing the issue themselves.

Sometimes you’re in two minds about providing pleasant customer service when you can see a heavy consumer’s problems up close. However, I meet the person and not their potential alcoholism. The reasons behind that are to be found elsewhere than in the store. When I’m listening to people’s life stories, I sometimes think that I’d buy a few drinks too if I were in their shoes.

Maarit: I’ve talked about these things with other members of staff, but we’re dealing with adults – we can’t refuse a sale without justifiable grounds. We must always provide the customers with justification for refusing a sale.

If a customer’s alcohol use causes concern, should staff have the opportunity to raise the topic with them?

Laura: There are so many such cases that I don’t see it as a realistic option. One customer group that I sometimes think about are people with long-term illnesses who are on regular medication.

Maarit: I agree with Laura. Some customers have given positive feedback when I’ve raised the topic with them, or even turned them away at the door. They’ve thanked me for it later, or even at the time. But these are sensitive issues, it’s best not to go charging in...

Do you ever end up mulling over things that have happened at work?

Maarit: A particularly negative encounter with a customer will often weigh on my mind for a while, regardless of whether it resulted from me or the customer having a bad day. I tend to forget good encounters with customers far too quickly, even though they’re much more pleasant to remember. You learn and develop from both, even though the negative ones are always unfortunate.

Jerry: I often remember good days, when there’s been a good atmosphere at work and I’ve had interesting encounters with customers. But I also find myself mulling over some of the more unfortunate encounters that I could have handled better myself.

Laura: Some encounters and heated exchanges with customers do get you thinking. It can be difficult, especially if you often meet that customer. I might start wondering if I could have handled the situation better. Most of the things that stick in my mind are positive encounters, including those related to sales supervision.

Laura Kujansuu (on the left)  has been a salesperson at the Alko store in Tammisto Citymarket, Vantaa from 1999 to 2004 and since 2011. Maarit Lilja (in the middle) and Jerry Karhunen (on the right) have also been working at the the same store in Tammisto, Vantaa, from 1998 and 2017 respectively.

Photo: Ville Rinne.