Fitting a child car seat
Car seat fitting – which retailer is best?
By Anna Studman
Article 2 of 4
Which? goes undercover to see whether shops that offer a free car seat fitting service are actually installing them safely and securely.
In spring 2014, our car seat fitting experts travelled almost 2,000 miles, visiting 42 major stores to check the service on offer.
We asked each store to fit two child car seats and uncovered serious failings: we were concerned to find that only four stores out of 42 managed to fit both car seats correctly.
Watch our video to see some of the shocking failings we found.
Our undercover investigation revealed:
- 90% of the 42 stores failed to fit our two car seats correctly;
- 13 out of the 42 stores visited failed to ask the age or weight of our child; and
- Several stores fitted seats so badly that a child using them could be in serious danger in a crash.
When you go to the shops, make sure you choose a Best Buy car seat to ensure that your child is kept as safe as possible on the road.
We’ve shared detailed findings with each of the retailers and have urged them to improve, but for now we’re advising all parents and grandparents to check their seats carefully themselves and make sure they're fully clued up before going to buy a new seat.
You can do this using our free 10 car seat fitting checks guide – download it today and ensure that your car seat is installed correctly so that it keeps your little one as safe as possible in the event of a crash.
Worst car seat fittings
You can buy the best car seat in the world, but if it’s not fitted properly it won't be effective in a crash and could put your child in serious danger.
The worst stores we found for fitting child car seats were Babies R Us, Kiddicare and Mamas & Papas. These shops had high error rates and gave some of the worst fittings of the investigation. However, all the retailers we visited during this investigation need to improve: even John Lewis, the highest-performing major retailer in our investigation, only got the fittings right four times out of 12.
In the most shocking fittings our experts saw:
- A car seat fitted with the support leg, an important safety feature, still tucked underneath the car seat base.
- Assistants failing to extend the support leg on the car seat base properly, or not ensuring that it was touching the floor.
- Fitters struggling to install a car seat using the adult seat belt alone and others not being able to confidently use the Isofix system, which is designed to make fitting a car seat easier.
- Seats fitted with gaps at the back, with the headrest incorrectly still in place, or without being secured tightly enough to the car.
Many assistants also dished out bad advice – including saying the support leg on a car seat base didn't need to be touching the floor, which is completely untrue.
Go straight to our car seats reviews for the seats that scored top in our safety, ease of fitting and comfort tests.
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Mamas & Papas
One safe fitting out of 12
The results from Mamas & Papas are very worrying, especially as the retailer vowed to improve its fitting service following our previous investigations in this area. There was a catalogue of major errors in nearly every store we visited. Our experts gave it the highest error rate of all the stores, and Mamas & Papas' shop assistants gave bad advice on several occasions.
Some of the major mistakes included fitting a seat without spotting the support leg still tucked underneath (making it very unstable), incorrectly suggesting that the support leg didn't need to be touching the floor, failing to extend the support leg at all, and not being able to use the Isofix system confidently.
What Mamas & Papas says:
'At Mamas & Papas, the safety of children is of paramount importance and we're extremely committed to car seat safety. Since the report in 2011, we've worked incredibly hard to educate store colleagues and the general public about car seat safety using the Which? Charter*. The recent customer feedback we've received has been positive, so we're disappointed at the results found by Which? following its visit to six stores back in April.
'The results of this investigation highlight inconsistencies in advice that's provided to retailers by a number of different bodies. As such, we believe there's an opportunity for retailers, car seat brands, the government and Which? to collaborate together so we all provide consistent advice, and together we can ensure that children travel in the safest way.'
Babies R Us
One safe fitting out of 12
Babies R Us stores use a checklist, which helped the assistants to ask the right questions, so this is positive. But when it came to actually fitting the car seats, the retailer only managed to achieve one successful fitting.
Two car seat fittings were particularly worrying, with assistants failing to notice that the support leg of the seat wasn’t touching the floor properly, and not spotting the underfloor storage compartment in the first place (a car seat or base using a support leg shouldn't be installed over an underfloor storage compartment as it's not safe).
In one of the worst visits to a Babies R Us store, the belted car seat was fitted without using the belt routing guides at all. Our experts were told it was safe to use, but it was clear the assistant didn’t know what they were doing, and they admitted that they were ‘only trained once a year’.
What Babies R Us says:
'We will continue to build and strengthen our training and support for car seat safety fittings in recognition of the Which? Charter*, and ensure we continue our commitment to improving these disappointing results.'
*The Which? Charter is a 10-point best practice charter that five major car seat retailers, including Babies R Us, signed up to following our previous child car seat fitting investigation.
Three safe fittings out of 12
We investigated Kiddicare for the first time this year as it has rapidly expanded across the UK (last time we investigated, it had just one store). Despite three correct fittings, Kiddicare is in our ‘worst’ category because of a really bad fitting where an Isofix seat was fitted with just one Isofix connector attached to the seat of the car, when both connectors should have been fixed. If the car had been driven off with the seat fitting like this and then been involved in an accident, it could have had serious consequences.
On a separate visit, a Kiddicare employee fitted a belted seat without realising there was a gap at the back of the seat so wide that our mystery shopper could fit their hand in it.
Kiddicare fitters failed to ask any pre-sales questions, despite heavy promotion about staff being ‘experts’ and ‘certified’. Some staff seemed knowledgeable, but others gave incorrect advice, such as saying that Isofix seats are safer in a side collision, which isn't correct - seats installed via Isofix are generally safer, but the direction of the impact is not the reason for this.
What Kiddicare says:
'Kiddicare is disappointed with the findings as we work with our colleagues and suppliers to deliver exceptional service to each and every one of our customers. We are in the process of investigating these claims and will take corrective actions where required.'
Two safe fittings out of 12
Halfords came top in our 2013 online retailer investigation into web-based car seat advice, but its in-store offering falls short. When we visited branches in person, Halfords managed just two successful fittings. Assistants did ask about age and weight, and mentioned keeping babies rear-facing for longer, but all of the belted car seats were fitted incorrectly.
Halfords' annual report states that it has 'let other pressures and processes get in the way of service’ - and we agree.
What Halfords says:
'We’re disappointed with the results of tests taken in April in just six of our stores. We have in excess of 460 stores and have invested in a programme of robust internal training and annual refresher courses for colleagues.
'We'd like to point out that The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (ROSPA) has accredited our fitting courses and we're confident that we've substantially improved our customer experience. We also recently conducted thousands of free child seat safety checks in stores across the country during Child Safety Week.'
Three safe fittings out of 12
Only three seats were fitted correctly at Mothercare. Stores were inconsistent in asking pre-sales questions, including the age or weight of the child - an important factor in determining whether the child is being moved to the next seat too soon.
One store used a checklist effectively, but others failed to ask any questions at all. Although staff appeared fairly well trained, the errors made on the actual car seat fittings, such as missing the car's underfloor storage compartment and the belt routing, let the fitters down.
What Mothercare says:
'Mothercare is committed to offering an exemplary car seat fitting service to all our customers. Over the last year we've invested significantly in training and have worked even more closely with our suppliers to provide enhanced specialist advice for customers and colleagues.
'We recognise there's more to do in certain areas and will ensure that we continue to invest in our people and offer the very best and most accurate car seat service.'
Four safe fittings out of 12
John Lewis fared the best out of the major retailers, but there's still plenty of room for improvement as only a third of the seats were correctly fitted. Staff appeared fairly well trained and generally asked the right questions, as well as mentioning the importance of keeping the baby in the infant carrier for as long as possible. But other advice was less reliable.
We also found that staff made it hard to get a car seat fitted. Despite John Lewis's website saying that you don't need to book an appointment in advance, our mystery shoppers were often left waiting around for a fitting.
What John Lewis says:
'Our nursery assortment is a core part of our offer and we're disappointed with the results of the report. We'll be taking immediate action to communicate these findings to our teams and identify the changes we need to make as a result of the findings.
'Car seat fitting is already mandatory training for all Partners who sell them and is repeated on a yearly basis. However, we've recently refreshed our development programme to give Partners the greater knowledge and experience they need to ensure the right advice is given to customers, and to emphasise the responsibility we have to give accurate advice. We'll look again at our programme to ensure that the points raised by Which? are reflected in our Partner training.'
Seven safe fittings out of 12
Compared with the major retailers, independent stores did fairly well. They're by no means perfect, but did achieve the most successful car seat fittings.
All stores either asked the weight or the age of the child, which helps determine the correct point at which to move a child into the next seat. Most explained the benefits of keeping your child reward-facing for longer, as well as the pros and cons of this, but some of the advice wasn’t as comprehensive as we’d expect.
A few stores failed to spot the underfloor storage in our car, a common mistake during this investigation, and a few made mistakes such as missing the belt routing.