Train & Then Train Some More
Two years ago, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) announced the release of “Tobacco Retailer Training Programs,” an offshoot of the 2009 Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act. While this proverbial pipe was passed to retailers in good faith, neither effort legally requires tobacco training programs for employees.
“The FDA has not yet issued retail training program standards,” said Thomas Briant, executive director of the National Association of Tobacco Outlets (NATO). “NATO had recommended that the FDA adopt or endorse the We Card program as meeting the training requirements of the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act.”
Founded in 1995, We Card’s goal is educating and training retailers about tobacco best practices. To date, the organization has held more than 2,100 classroom training sessions in all 50 states, which included 350,000-plus owners, managers and frontline employees, according to We Card President Doug Anderson. More than 237 regional, state and local trade associations, including NATO support the We Card program currently.
“Before FDA’s enforcement authority for the Tobacco Control Act began in 2010, retailers had to comply with state laws governing youth access to tobacco,” Anderson explained. “There is an ongoing need to raise awareness of the states’ and the federal laws’ existence, their requirements and the consequences for failing to comply.”
Convenience Store News was unsuccessful in reaching the FDA for comment. The agency in June 2014 released a revised version of its “Tobacco Retailer Training Programs” guidance report. The 18-page document covers issues such as provisions regarding sale and distribution; provisions regarding advertising and promotion; and recommendations for training frequency, methods and review.
A caveat at the top of the report reads: “This guidance represents the Food and Drug Administration’s current thinking on this topic. It does not create or confer any rights for or on any person and does not operate to bind FDA or the public. You can use an alternative approach if the approach satisfies the requirements of the applicable statutes and regulations.”
For retailers new to the convenience store industry, Briant said it is incumbent they study the local, state and federal laws to ensure they are in compliance. “Generally, a retailer must obtain a local license from a city or county government to be able to legally sell tobacco products,” he said. “For this reason, a new retailer should become a member of a state and/or national retail trade association to become educated about the requirements of selling tobacco products.”
VIOLATIONS DECREASE SALES
While the FDA does not require mandatory tobacco training, there are consequences for failure to comply. A retailer’s first offense is mild: there is no monetary fee and the issuance of a warning letter. If during the next 12 months another violation is realized, the retailer is charged $250. A third violation in the same timeframe raises the violation to $500, a fourth $2,000, fifth $3,600, and if a sixth offense occurs within 48 months, a $10,000 fine is levied.
“The FDA can issue a no tobacco sales order, including banning the retailer from selling cigarettes, RYO [roll-your-own] and smokeless tobacco, for five or more violations in a 36-month time period,” Briant pointed out.
NACS, the Association for Convenience & Fuel Retailing, a founding member of We Card, reports that tobacco sales represent approximately 40 percent of in-store sales at convenience stores, plus ancillary product sales. To this end, retailers are keen to adhere to federal and state regulations, and many seek out industry-proven organizations for guidance.
We Card training programs have received the support of seven attorneys general, as well as many tobacco manufacturers including Reynolds American Inc. and Altria Group Distribution Co.
“Prior to the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, various locations in the country had various regulations and ordinances about signage and minimum age laws,” said Altria Senior Manager of Communications Brian May. “We want to partner with our retailers on how to responsibly grow that [tobacco] business. We have several requirements and guidelines as to how it relates to our products and merchandise.”
On the education side, May explained the majority of conversations Altria sales representatives have with c-store operators focus on how a respective tobacco segment is performing and opportunities to gain efficiencies. “A cigarette consumer, according to our research, will have a higher market basket in many instances than another consumer,” he said.
In an effort to enhance respective tobacco sales while ensuring regulation compliance, Altria sales representatives provide c-stores with a “leave behind” sheet that features the slogan: Better Tools. Better Knowledge. Better Performance. This effort is a partnership with AGDC Partner Training, or APT for short. C-store management and employees are encouraged to visit the APT website, which touts tobacco advertising and sales tutorials, e-books and best practices.
“One of the things we’ve heard from retailers is the need to keep their staff current with the latest information in an evolving category,” said Blake Benefiel, director, trade and state relations at Altria Group Distribution Co. “With APT, store associates can access a suite of educational tools and training resources that will better prepare them to answer questions from their customers, which we think will help them improve their category performance.”
Altria provides retailers with several technology tools to help them manage their tobacco categories. Another online tool, insightsc3m, provides store-level payment detail, price and promotion info, and realtime access to tobacco category news and updates.
“The idea here is really simple. Increasing the knowledge of the store associate equals improved performance in the tobacco category,” said May.
Reynolds also works to help educate store personnel about the various brands and products, so they can then have informed conversations with their adult tobacco consumers. To that end, R.J. Reynolds’ customer website, EngageTradePartners.com, offers the latest retail and category insights, according to Mike Auger, executive vice president, trade marketing at R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co.
“It’s important for c-store retailers to recognize that tobacco products are still — and will continue to be — a key segment, representing over 36 percent of all in-store sales,” Auger said. “We’ve also found that our customers appreciate the resources available on our customer website, which is designed to help them stay on top of trends and manage the overall category more effectively.”
Since convenience stores often have high turnover rates, ongoing education is critical as some regulations are not inherent. For example, the FDA requires that cashiers ask customers who are assumed to be under the age of 27 for identification.
“Training is not a one-and-done cure for responsible retailing,” said Anderson, adding that while We Card used to offer instructor-led classroom training, all courses (for employees, managers and a refresher course) are now conducted online.
The training involves role-playing from a behind-the-counter perspective, where trainees interact with varying customer-cashier scenarios. Additionally, training is state law specific; includes FDA’s recommended content and requirements for Tobacco Retailer Training Programs; and provides important customer service techniques as well as how to spot fake identification.
Whether a c-store retailer is a single-store operator or a large chain, the same tobacco laws and fines apply. Briant said this is among the reasons why NATO supports We Card and its educational platform.
“Most retailers, whether they are single-store operators or large chains, rely on a commercial training program like We Card to train their employees,” said Briant. “Some large convenience store chains also have their own internal compliance check programs or retain an outside company to perform spot compliance checks to ensure that employees are requesting photo identification of customers and not selling tobacco products to minors.”
In collaboration with ongoing tobacco training and education, Anderson also stressed c-store operators must include other strategic efforts to ensure management and employees are putting what they learned into practice.
“Training by itself is not a singular solution. Equipping stores and employees with in-store signage, tools and job aids is important, as is the need for internally measuring performance,” he said.
TRAINING GOES MOBILE
Anderson encourages retailers to visit We Card’s website, which features a Training Resource Center page. Here, they can sign up for FDA tobacco compliance webinars and register for an employee training course, as well as review state law summaries, state signage requirements and minor license visual characteristics. A variety of downloads are also available, including Understanding FDA Requirements and We Card’s Guide to Best Practices, which includes a template for a Company Tobacco Sales Policy.
This January, a new mobile site called We Card NOW launched. It provides useful tools such as Carding Tips, an Age Calculator for calculating a customer’s age based on an ID’s date of birth and an e-Calendar. This 1.0 version will evolve to have greater interactivity and content.
New initiatives like We Card NOW are important because the market is changing, according to Anderson. For example, he cited the electronic cigarette and vape movement.
“E-vapor is a new category and it’s still in the early days. Consumer interest is evolving,” said Altria’s May. “We have a lot of information on our AGDC Partner Training website on e-vapor. We just rolled this [information] out in the last few months and it is the next extension of how we approach training, education and consulting services to our trade partners.”
For a period of time, e-cigarette and vape federal and state regulations were unclear, but that’s now changing. To date, 42 states have passed laws equating these products to be equivalent to traditional tobacco products. Some of the remaining eight states are expected to pass similar legislation in the near future.
“Currently, FDA regulations do not address e-cigarettes, although it has indicated an intention to do so through a deeming regulation in the future,” noted Anderson. “We Card trains retailers to deny e-cigarette and vapor product sales to minors even when state law or federal law may not require it.”
“There is an ongoing need to raise awareness of the states’ and the federal laws’ existence, their requirements and the consequences for failing to comply.”
— Doug Anderson, We Card
“The idea here is really simple. Increasing the knowledge of the store associate equals improved performance in the tobacco category.”
— Brian May, Altria Group Distribution Co.
“Implementing tobacco training programs for managers and employees is the rule for convenience store retailers, not the exception.”
— Thomas Briant, National Association of Tobacco Outlets (NATO)