A Which? undercover investigation into car seat retailers has discovered most stores are failing to ask key safety questions of parents, potentially putting children’s lives at risk.
We sent mystery shoppers into all the top car seat retailers. They were posing as parents upgrading a baby car seat. We visited 213 stores in total and, judged against a success rate of 100% for asking all the right questions, we saw an 89% failure rate.
We visited 12 John Lewis and seven Mamas & Papas stores and both came bottom with what we judged to be a fail rate of 100%. This means that none of the store staff at the stores visited correctly asked all of the key questions (listed below) before recommending a car seat (though half of John Lewis branches that were visited did achieve a score on our scale of between 80 and 91%, only missing out on a few questions).
Only three of the seven Mamas & Papas stores scored more than 50% on our scale.
We visited 86 Halfords stores and these performed best of the retailers we visited, but still had an 83% fail rate overall against our scale for asking all of the key questions. Halfords stores in Scotland scored best: 13 (38%) Halfords stores out of 34 in Scotland passed with 100%. In England/Wales, two out of 52 Halfords stores also got 100%.
Our advice to parents remains the same, don’t buy a seat before trying it first. Always get your car seat fitted by a trained expert. But before you head to a store:
- Research your seat
- Take along our checklist of information
- Give the answer to all of these questions to the store staff
- Ask for a demonstration
- Get hands on while you’re there
- Challenge anything which you don’t feel is right
Our undercover investigation focused on high street retailers, and we did not assess online retailers.
We don’t recommend parents buy car seats online, because checks show that car seats bought online can be incorrectly fitted.
Car seats – which retailers are best? – find out which came out top and how other retailers, including independents, fared.
Car seat safety questions that aren’t getting asked
Our undercover researchers visited retail stores in Scotland, England and Wales, across all the major car seat retailers: Halfords, Mothercare, Smyths, John Lewis, Mamas & Papas, plus a range of independent retailers.
The shoppers posed as customers wanting to upgrade a baby car seat for a nine-month-old, 9kg, baby. Among those questions they should have been asked, in the scenario we presented, were:
What’s your baby’s weight, height and age?
Many baby car seats are chosen by weight or height, and keeping a baby in a lower group seat is considered better than moving up a seat too soon. 95% of stores we visited asked the age of the child rather than the child’s weight or height. Age is a starting point, but it’s not the best way to select a child car seat. Asking the child’s weight and height, too, will help to ensure the right car seat can be recommended, especially if the baby isn’t with you.
What vehicle do you have?
Not all car seats fit in every car, so it’s vital that staff ask this question to ensure they can select the correct seat. However, 18% of assistants we questioned didn’t ask what car the seat would go in.
Will you be using the car seat in any other vehicles?
Assistants should also be asking about any other cars the seat will be used in, to ensure any car seats recommended will be compatible. 54% of those assistants we visited completely missed asking this question, but went on to recommend car seats anyway.
Does your car have ISOfix connectors?
Almost a third (30%) failed to ask if the car had Isofix connectors. If a car does not have Isofix connectors, this will affect the seat recommendation.
Does your car have a top-tether point?
Not all cars have a top-tether point. 55% of those visits, where this question was applicable, didn’t mention top tether when discussing Isofix. This could affect which car seat should be recommended.
Does your car have underfloor storage?
83% of those sales assistants we visited failed to ask if the car had underfloor storage, which could lead to the wrong car seat being recommended. In some cars a child car seat using a support leg can’t be used in a seating position with underfloor storage, but many assistants did not mention underfloor storage or give advice about why this could be an issue.
Other key safety issues that are getting ignored
Fit list check
Not all Isofix seats are compatible with all Isofix cars. If an Isofix seat was recommended, the manufacturer fit list should have been checked by sales assistants to confirm compatibility. 55% didn’t do this check.
Demonstrating the fitting of the car seat
A demonstration of how to fit the car seat is vital as it allows parents to see what they are buying and ensure it’s the best car seat for them, their car and their baby, but nearly a quarter (23%) of assistants didn’t offer this.
Not explaining benefits of rear facing for longer
Our mystery shoppers were posing as parents upgrading from a baby car seat to the next stage. But, despite this, 21% of sales assistants didn’t explain the benefits of keeping babies rear facing for as long as possible. Turning a baby forward facing too soon is a potential safety risk.
What the retailers say
A Halfords spokesperson told us: ‘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 incorporate the Which? Charter and 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.’
John Lewis told us: ‘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 its methodology and would value the opportunity to discuss it further.’
Mamas & Papas
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 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 Child Seat Safety 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.’
A spokesperson for Smyths toys said: ‘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.’
Years of safety failings
What’s most disappointing is that these safety failings aren’t the first we’ve seen. Which? investigated car seat retailer fittings in 2011, 2012 and 2014. In each of those years we received similarly shocking results which were fed back to retailers.
In our 2014 fitting investigation, 9 out of 10 retailers failed our car seat fitting tests and promised to follow up and improve the situation.
Lisa Galliers, Which? car seat expert, says: ‘Years on we really shouldn’t be seeing results like this.
‘Retailers continue to put babies lives at risk by failing to ensure car seat salespeople are asking the right questions and giving out the best advice and recommendations for car seats.
‘Retailers say they’re offering training, and I’ve been on some of these training courses, but something is clearly still not filtering down to the shop floor. That needs to change. We’ve offered to meet with all retailers involved to help them improve.’
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, who commissioned an independent research company. Its last mystery shop, in 2017, recorded a 9 out of 10 failure rate.
Jan James, Good Egg Safety CEO says: ‘These are extremely disappointing results. Following last year’s independent checks commissioned by Good Egg Safety, we shared all of the information with retailers. They were given the information in great detail and understood the methodology. Nothing has changed, nothing should be a surprise’
‘It is evident retailers have a genuine interest in improving their advice in-store by attending our meetings and we have always stated that we’d prefer parents to buy in a store than online. That is still the case. One of the main issues, however, is sales assistants are not completing a safety assessment form at the point of sale.
‘In a busy store, with children, ear pieces and myriad distractions;without a consultation form, some of these critical questions are being missed. We see the results in our child car seat events where almost 70%, on average, are incorrectly fitted to either child or car.’
What we want to see from retailers
We want to see all sales assistants selling child car seats using a consultation form and we want to see parents asking for this to be used. This lists all the key questions that need asking, so that no vital safety information is missed. Some retailers say they have these forms, but 86% of of the store staff we mystery shopped did not use one – the results could have been a lot different with this simple check in place.
Until this happens we’d encourage all parents to download our key question check list to take with them when buying a child car seat.
How we carried out our testing
In one of the largest car seat mystery shops, 213 retail stores were visited in total, over Summer 2018, divided across 10 different areas of the UK. These included all the major car seat retailers: Halfords (86), Mothercare (52), Smyths (36), John Lewis (12), Mamas & Papas (7), plus range of independent retailers (20). The number of visits to each retailer (indicated in brackets) were a snapshot relative to the number of stores across the UK offering car seat fitting.
The salesperson at each retailer was marked according to how many of the applicable 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 demonstrated, or the store staff simply didn’t explain why they hadn’t asked that question.