Child car seats: How Which? makes child car seats safer Car seat retailer advice - 2011/2012 results

Even a Best Buy child car seat can only protect your child in a crash when it's installed properly. Parents need advice to help them choose the right car seat and install it safely.

But when our experts visited 43 child car seat retailers in 2011 and tested how they advised customers, we were shocked at the findings.

Child car seat retailer advice compared

In our undercover investigation, we found: 

  • almost half the stores we visited failed to install the seats correctly
  • 15 out of the 43 stores visited failed to ask the weight of our child
  • 20 stores recommended seats that were incompatible with our ordinary family car
  • two major retail chains completely failed to mention the importance of keeping our baby rear facing for longer.

Video: child car seat investigation findings

You can see some examples of the typical mistakes they made in this video.

 

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How the stores performed 

We conducted a mystery shopping exercise in 2011 and repeated it in 2012, using the same car seat advice undercover investigation scenario both times.

Independent retailers

There are about 300 independent retailers around the UK who sell child car seats. Most offer an advice and fitting service. We sampled a selection.

Our results in 2011

Independent retailers
Visits rated acceptable20112012
Q1 Asked the child’s weight?5/7n/a
Q2 Recommended rear facing for longer?5/7n/a
Q3 Explained child’s head position?6/7n/a
Q4 Asked which cars we’ll be using?6/7n/a
Q5 Checked suitability for our cars?6/7n/a
Q6 Good staff knowledge?6/7n/a
Q7 Correctly installed seat(s) in our car?6/7n/a
Overall tally40/49n/a

Verdict 

Independents gave the best advice in our 2011 investigation. They offered a generally high standard, with a few exceptions. Most were prepared to turn down a sale they didn’t think appropriate. 

We did not include independents in our 2012 investigation, because their 2011 results were so much better than the chain store results.

John Lewis

John Lewis claims: ‘We stock a wide range of seats to cover all ages, from birth to a child weighing 36kg, and we’ll be happy to advise you.’ Its website has a reasonably comprehensive buying guide. 

What we found 2011

The best results for a chain store. Most staff were confident, cheerful and reasonably well informed. Generally, if they didn’t know something, they tried to find out. 

What we found in 2012

John Lewis lost its spot as the top retail chain, and gave us cause to doubt its ‘never knowingly undersold on service’ claim. Despite booking our appointments, we arrived at some stores and were told no booking had been made, or were asked to come back later. We had to visit nine stores to achieve seven successful visits.

Once we did get served, staff knowledge was generally good, but their ability to fit seats correctly was very disappointing.

John Lewis
Visits rated acceptable20112012
Q1 Asked the child’s weight?5/74/7
Q2 Recommended rear facing for longer?6/74/7
Q3 Explained child’s head position?6/76/7
Q4 Asked which cars we’ll be using?3/73/7
Q5 Checked suitability for our cars?4/76/7
Q6 Good staff knowledge?3/74/7
Q7 Correctly installed seat(s) in our car?5/72/7
Overall tally32/4929/49

Verdict

Clear procedures in most stores in 2011, and demonstrations were mostly of a high standard. But service was slow and one store refused an in-car demonstration, while another made errors fitting the seat.

Our 2012 investigation revealed a disappointing slip in standards, particularly when it came to fitting seats correctly.

Mothercare

Mothercare says: ‘With our free, safe fit service a trained fitting expert will be happy to check the seat you buy fits your child and car.’ The service is for any seat bought instore or online from Mothercare.

What we found in 2011

The best shops were well drilled to provide good fittings and gave accurate advice. The worst could sell you a seat that won’t fit your car.

What we found in 2012

Mothercare was the best of the chains second time around. Our experts noted some improvements, but were disappointed that five stores failed to install seats correctly.

Mothercare had introduced a new training programme delivered in 61 of its 200 stores, and aimed to have at least three trained car seat advisers available in every store.

Mothercare
Visits rated acceptable20112012
Q1 Asked the child’s weight?6/76/7
Q2 Recommended rear facing for longer?3/74/7
Q3 Explained child’s head position?4/75/7
Q4 Asked which cars we’ll be using?3/73/7
Q5 Checked suitability for our cars?4/77/7
Q6 Good staff knowledge?2/73/7
Q7 Correctly installed seat(s) in our car?4/72/7
Overall tally26/4930/49

Verdict

Mothercare showed some good signs of improvement in 2012, but still had some way to go to match independent stores.

Halfords

Halford claims: ‘Halfords are the instore specialists on child car seats and booster seats, with over 2,000 trained child car seat specialists nationwide to help you choose the right seat for your child and the perfect fit for your car.’

What we found in 2011 and 2012

We found no staff in Halfords stores we visited with a broad knowledge of child car seats. Many read from product labels to advise us. The score was even worse in our 2012 investigation, where one store scored no points at all.

Halfords
Visits rated acceptable20112012
Q1 Asked the child’s weight?4/73/7
Q2 Recommended rear facing for longer?1/71/7
Q3 Explained child’s head position?3/71/7
Q4 Asked which cars we’ll be using?6/72/7
Q5 Checked suitability for our cars?4/75/7
Q6 Good staff knowledge?0/73/7
Q7 Correctly installed seat(s) in our car?3/71/7
Overall tally21/4916/49

Verdict

Disappointing service. Based on our visits, you’d have a high chance of being recommended an inappropriate seat and a higher chance that it would be incorrectly fitted.

Mamas & Papas

Mamas & Papas showed the biggest improvement between our first and second investigation.

What we found in 2011

We wondered if the staff we met had seen the M&P website, or had robust training. Based on our findings, there seemed to be a significant chance you’d be sold the wrong seat, or have one installed incorrectly.

What we found in 2012

Mamas & Papas was the most open retailer in sharing and consulting with us about what to do to improve things. It was the most improved of the chains, with the stores visited doing better in four of our seven criteria. 

It launched its own Safer Seat campaign - in partnership with Which?. This is heavily based around the Which? Retailer Best Practice Charter.

Mamas & Papas
Visits rated acceptable20112012
Q1 Asked the child’s weight?4/75/7
Q2 Recommended rear facing for longer?0/74/7
Q3 Explained child’s head position?1/75/7
Q4 Asked which cars we’ll be using?3/70/7
Q5 Checked suitability for our cars?1/75/7
Q6 Good staff knowledge?3/73/7
Q7 Correctly installed seat(s) in our car?1/71/7
Overall tally13/4923/49

Verdict

Some signs of progress in 2012, but it's worrying that staff made serious mistakes when demonstrating how to install seats.

Babies R Us

Babies R Us says: ‘All our stores have advisers trained to fit car seats and check the seat you’re considering is the right one for your child and car. They’ll happily demonstrate how to fit it safely.’

What we found in 2011

Staff knowledge was minimal. Based on our investigation, you’re highly likely to be sold an inappropriate seat or have the seat you buy incorrectly installed.  

What we found in 2012

Babies R Us scored slightly better than the previous year. Unlike all the other retail chains, several Babies R Us stores didn’t have a demonstration rig, which would have been useful for allowing staff to show us the installation principles without the clutter of a car body to restrict the customer’s view.

Babies R Us
Visits rated acceptable20112012
Q1 Asked the child’s weight?4/73/7
Q2 Recommended rear facing for longer?0/71/7
Q3 Explained child’s head position?1/72/7
Q4 Asked which cars we’ll be using?3/71/7
Q5 Checked suitability for our cars?3/76/7
Q6 Good staff knowledge?0/72/7
Q7 Correctly installed seat(s) in our car?1/71/7
Overall tally12/4916/49

Verdict

A disappointingly poor performance. Despite doing very poorly in 2011, improvements have been slow to materialise.

Tesco

Tesco has sold child car seats on its website for some time. We advise against buying seats online, as you usually can’t usually get personalised advice or a demo. 

In 2011 Tesco was piloting the sale of child seats in an Extra store in Manchester, so we sent our researchers to see how well they did.

The sales assistant failed to ask the baby’s weight, neglected the importance of staying rear facing for longer and ignored the baby’s height relative to the seat back. The adviser’s knowledge of other aspects of seat design and the law on car seats seemed limited. 

However, when it came to fitting a belted child seat in our car, the demo went smoothly, with each stage reasonably well explained.

Tesco said: 'Our advisers at the store are trained by Britax to demonstrate seats, not fit or install them. They are trained to ask the weight of the baby and height etc to advise customers on their car seats - but we are not providing a fitting service.'

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