Which? reveals the car seat retailers putting lives at risk

John Lewis and Mamas & Papas finish bottom of the table in a new Which? mystery shop investigation.

Four years on from the last Which? investigation into child car seat retailers, we can reveal that despite retailers’ commitments to improve their standards, in nine out of ten of our mystery shop visits (89%), staff failed to ask all of the important questions required to safely advise customers about which child car seat to choose.

The consumer champion sent mystery shoppers posing as customers who wanted to upgrade a baby car seat for a nine-month-old, 9kg (20lb) baby to more than 200 branches of high street chains and independent retailers who sell car seats. In each store, sales assistants had to ask all of our key safety questions recommended by experts and manufacturers in order to pass our safety criteria.

John Lewis and Mamas & Papas were the worst performers of all the retailers in our investigation, with what we judged to be a 100 per cent fail rate against our scale. None of the stores visited asked all the relevant safety questions when advising on which child car seat to buy.

Although half of the John Lewis branches achieved a score on our scale of between 80 and 91 per cent, having only missed a few questions. Only one Mamas & Papas store scored more than 80 per cent on our scale.

Despite a high fail rate of 83 per cent on our scale, Halfords was the best performer in the mystery shop. In 38 per cent of its Scottish branches, sales assistants asked all the relevant questions, while in England only two out of 52 stores successfully asked all the key questions.

The investigation also found independent stores performed better than most major car seat retailers with a fail rate of 90 per cent.

To safely advise customers on child car seats, sales assistant need to ask a series of questions including the age, weight and height of the child, details of the car the seat will be used in and demonstrate how it should be fitted safely.

However, Which? found nearly a quarter of stores (23%) did not offer fitting demonstrations.

In 18 per cent of the visits, staff failed to ask a vital question that would impact their ability to safely recommended an appropriate car seat – what car would the car seat be used in?

A key follow-up question is whether the car seat would also be used in another car, but, in 54 per cent of visits retail staff did not ask about this. Child car seats should be fitted to a child’s height and weight rather than just using age, according to safety experts. Yet, in 95 per cent of the store visits, sales assistants only asked about the child’s age, which is not always the best indicator of a child’s size.

If retailers fail to ask just one of these questions they could potentially misadvise customers.

Which? believes it should be mandatory for sales assistants to use a consultation form when speaking with customers to make sure important safety information is not missed.

Nikki Stopford, Director of Research and Publishing at Which?, said:

“This is another disappointingly poor service from retailers who previously promised to improve the quality of safety advice they give to customers shopping for child car seats.

“Retailers have told us that staff are trained to the highest standards. This alone clearly isn’t working so retailers must urgently introduce checklists to make sure staff are asking all the important safety questions when advising customers.”


Notes to editors
We visited 213 retail stores in total, divided into 10 different areas of the UK. These included all the major car seat retailers: Halfords (86), Mothercare (52), Smyths Toys (36), John Lewis (12), Mamas and Papas (7), plus range a of independent retailers (20).

The salesperson at each retailer was marked according to how many of the following key safety questions were asked. The questions, developed with car seat industry experts and car seat manufacturers, were all rated equally. Retailers were marked with a ‘fail’ if a question wasn’t asked, or there was no understanding of the topic, or demonstration of why the question didn’t need to be asked.

In order to pass our safety criteria, retailers had to ask the following questions: what’s your baby’s weight, height and age; what vehicle do you have; will you be using the car seat in any other vehicles; does your car have ISOfix connectors; does your car have a top-tether point (if applicable) and does your car have underfloor storage. Other key safety issues that need to be addressed during the consultation include a fit list check for ISOfix car seats; a demonstration on how to fit the car seat and an explanation of the benefits of rear facing.

We carried out our mystery shop in partnership with Good Egg Safety, an organisation that champions car seat safety and runs regular mystery shops and car seat checks carried out across the UK.

To see how each retailer performed, please see the table below:

Brand No. of stores Pass Fail % Failed
Halfords 86 15 71 83%
Independents 20 2 18 90%
Mothercare 52 5 47 90%
Smyths Toys 36 2 34 94%
John Lewis 12 0 12 100%
Mamas & Papas 7 0 7 100%

John Lewis said: “We treat the selling of car seats with the utmost seriousness and have invested significant resource and training in this area to get it right for our customers. We ensure every nursery Partner attends and passes a two-day car seat training course, independently run by the leading car seat training provider in the UK. We also have mystery shops carried out by a third party, following up on all subsequent advice to ensure the quality of our training. We have asked Which? to release their methodology and would value the opportunity to discuss it further with them.”

Mamas & Papas said: “Because car seat safety is so important to us, every Mamas & Papas store has an IOSH-accredited car seat expert and all colleagues are trained to follow a comprehensive check list during the sale process. We have asked Which? to confirm which Mamas & Papas stores featured in this research so that we can provide colleagues in these stores with refresher training if necessary.”

A Halfords spokesperson said: “At Halfords we take the safety of children very seriously. Whilst concerned to see the results, we don’t feel they represent our high levels of training, which have been developed in partnership with car seat manufacturers. We have requested the methodology from Which? to help us better understand the results and make changes where necessary, and would value the opportunity to discuss creating a single industry standard.”

Smyths Toys replied: “The many thousands of customers whom we serve, know the value of the direct personalised advice and assistance they receive from our staff who are trained to the highest standards. A credible investigation would have given these staff the opportunity to respond there and then to any specific criticism.”

A Mothercare spokesperson said: “At Mothercare, we are committed to offering an exemplary car seat fitting service to all our customers. We work hand in hand with an external company who train all our specialists to gain the industry recognised, IOSH qualification. We also work closely with our suppliers to provide enhanced specialist advice for customers. Without greater insight into the methodology and processes used by Which? and Good Egg, it is difficult to comment further on the specific findings of the survey.”

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