A joint undercover investigation by Which? and Good Egg Safety into car seat retailers has discovered most stores are failing to ask key safety questions of parents, potentially putting children's lives at risk.
Car seats - which retailers are best? - Find out who came out top and how other retailers, including independents fared.
Car seat safety questions that aren't getting asked
Our mystery shoppers visited retail stores in Scotland, England and Wales, across all the major car seat retailers: Halfords, Mothercare, Smyths, John Lewis, Mamas and Papas, plus a range of independent retailers.
Our mystery 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 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 (29%) 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. Just over a third of visits (34%) didn't mention top tether when discussing ISOfix. This could affect which car seat should be recommended.
Does your car have underfloor storage?
A whopping 81% 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. However the majority of assistants did not mention underfloor storage at all 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. 10% 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, 20% 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.
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 investigation, nine out of 10 retailers failed our car seat fitting tests and promised to follow up and improve the situation.
Jan James from Good Egg Safety 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 in our national joint industry group meeting. 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."Jan James, CEO Good Egg Safety
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. Its last mystery shop, in 2017, recorded a nine out of 10 failure rate."Lisa Galliers, Which?
What we want to see from retailers
We want to see all sales assistants selling child car seats using a 'Safety Assessment 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 'seat buying check list' and 'retailer safety assessment form' 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, 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 and Papas (7), plus range of independent retailers (20). The number of visits to each retailer (indicated in brackets) were a snapshot based on 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.