Industry sector: Retail and wholesale

Off-licence: Legal matters


The licensed trade is subject to a large amount of regulation and you should obtain specialist help to make sure you comply with all the legal requirements. The following is an outline of some of the areas that are likely to be relevant to you. This list is not exhaustive.

Alcohol licensing legislation

The sale of alcohol is regulated by:

  • the Licensing Act in England and Wales
  • the Licensing (Northern Ireland) Order
  • the Licensing (Scotland) Act in Scotland

If you intend to sell alcohol you'll need to obtain the appropriate licence/s and comply with the terms of the legislation and your licensing conditions. You can find out more information about alcohol licensing throughout the UK from:

  • the Gov.uk website
  • NI Direct
  • the Scottish Government website

Information is also available from local licensing authorities.

It is against the law to sell alcohol to people aged under 18. Unfortunately, plenty of under 18s try to buy alcohol - sometimes by asking someone older to buy it for them - so you'll need to be vigilant to make sure that you and your staff stick to the law. Mandatory licensing conditions in England and Wales mean that you have to have an effective age verification policy in place. Identification schemes like Challenge 21, PASS and CitizenCard can help you to do this effectively. In Scotland, the law says you'll need to use a scheme like Challenge 25 to check the age of anyone who appears to be under 25.

In England and Wales, it is against the law to sell alcoholic drink for less than the value of the excise duty plus VAT. In Scotland, it is against the law to offer quantity-based discount promotions such as 'buy one, get one free' deals on alcoholic drinks.

Tobacco products

You must not sell tobacco products - including cigarette papers - to young people under the age of 18. You must also make sure that all tobacco products you sell carry a UK duty paid fiscal mark and the required health warnings. Regulations prohibit tobacco displays and point-of-sale advertising in the shop. From May 2016 all tobacco products manufactured for sale in the UK must have standardised plain packaging. There's a one year transitional period for the 'sell-through' of old stock but from May 2017 all cigarettes on sale in the UK must be in standard packs. You can get more information on tobacco legislation from your local trading standards department.

Note that lighter refills containing butane gas are also age-restricted - the minimum age is 18. Other substances that may be used as lighter fluids must not be sold to under-18s if it is thought that they may be used as intoxicants.

DVD hire

If you rent out DVDs or computer games they must be properly marked with the correct classification symbol - for example PG (parental guidance). You must make sure that you don't hire out age-restricted DVDs or videos to people who are too young.

Be aware too that it's a breach of copyright law to purchase titles which are distributed as retail copies and then rent them out - you will need to obtain rental stock which is distributed under a rental copyright licence.

General retailing legislation

There is a wide range of legislation that applies to all types of retail outlet and protects the interests of the consumer. For example, goods must not be misleadingly described and the retail price of all goods must be clearly displayed. You are responsible for making sure that all goods or services are fit for their intended purpose and of satisfactory quality. Your local trading standards department will be able to give you more information and advice about general retailing legislation that affects your business.

Carrier bag charge

Retailers in Wales and Scotland must charge customers at least 5 pence if they supply them with a single-use carrier bag. This applies to all types of single-use bag, whether they are made of plastic, paper or plant-based starch. In Northern Ireland retailers must charge customers a 5 pence levy on all bags with a retail price of less than 20 pence (including any bags that would otherwise be free of charge), whether they are single-use or reusable. You can get detailed guidance about when the charge applies and your legal responsibilities as a retailer on the Carrier Bag Charge Wales, Zero Waste Scotland and NI Direct websites.

A 5 pence charge applies in England, but small and medium-sized businesses (with fewer than 250 full-time equivalent employees) are exempt.

Employment matters

Anyone employing staff must comply with employment legislation. Important pieces of legislation which you must be aware of include:

  • The Employment Rights Act
  • The National Minimum Wage Act
  • The Working Time Regulations

The employing people section of the Gov.uk website includes information and guidance on all aspects of employment legislation. Information for businesses in Northern Ireland is available on the NI Business Info website.

Health and safety

The Health and Safety at Work Act and the numerous regulations made under it cover all aspects of health and safety at all business premises. Employers have a duty to ensure the health and safety at work of all their employees. Those with five or more employees must prepare a written health and safety policy statement.

Further information and guidance leaflets on all aspects of health and safety are available on the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and Health and Safety Executive Northern Ireland (HSENI) websites and from your local authority environmental health department.

Food safety

All businesses in the food sector must comply with strict food safety legislation. If you are going to sell food, before you open you must register your business with the local authority environmental health department. Your local environmental health officer will be able to give you advice and guidance as to what you should install in your premises to make sure your operating areas are hygienic and how to comply with the requirements of food safety regulations.

Equality and discrimination law

You must not discriminate against anyone because of their age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion, sex or sexual orientation. This applies to every aspect of your business operations, from taking people on to dismissing them. You may need to make reasonable adjustments to your premises and working arrangements so that you don't unfairly discriminate against disabled people.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission and Equality Commission for Northern Ireland websites contain further information on your legal duties.