Trading standards: today's landscape and future perspectives

30th August 2022

How is today’s landscape changing for Trading Standards and how does this affect you and your teams?

We ran a workshop with trading standards professionals at the recent Chartered Trading Standards Institute (CTSI) conference in Bristol. As well as reflecting on the learnings from our previous CTSI workshop, he asked the audience about their views on what challenges and opportunities lie ahead. Is home working here to stay, and how much pain do online sellers cause you and your citizens for example? It was a lively and productive discussion as you'll see from the overview below.

Reflecting on the current landscape

Last year at the CTSI symposium in Birmingham, Trading Standards teams shared four key challenges in being able to deliver effective services.

Delivering more with less. With an ageing workforce and cuts in trainee posts, trading standards teams must work smarter (supported by technology) to deliver services that meet consumer expectations.

The move to blended working. Working from home offers benefits to staff and local authorities; but staff need the right support to thrive, and the right technology to be productive.

The changing nature of selling. The e-commerce boom brings the risk of unregulated marketplaces and sellers, and increased fraud. Trading standards teams may struggle to deal with issues like product traceability, consumer safety, and pricing practice abuse.

Optimising funding. A local authority whose trading standards officers also work for other councils can invest the costs recovered elsewhere but may put its own service provision at risk. A joint delivery or shared services model may provide a more sustainable approach as cost pressures continue to rise.

For more detail download our new report: 'transforming to meet the challenges of today and tomorrow'.

Where do we go from here?

We asked trading standards professionals to share their views on emerging trends and what changes are needed to deal with them. We discussed four topics.

1. Working styles: home, office or hybrid?

How are new working styles affecting your teams and the service you provide? As long as the IT is reliable, officers said working from home is convenient, enables increased productivity, and allows a better work/life balance. But they cautioned that individuals may miss casual interaction and learning opportunities — a particular issue for younger and less experienced officers.

Without office-based social interaction, individuals may feel isolated and as a result, team morale can also be affected. Those issues can be countered by going into the office from time to time (for weekly meetings, say) and keeping an active focus on mental health.

As a regulatory service, trading standards has to maintain a presence 'on the frontline,' including in-person visits and inspections. And no one wants to run the risk of putting too much distance between members of the public and trading standards teams.

2. Impact of a potential recession

How would a potential recession impact your council and community? Officers agreed that the cost-of-living crisis could exacerbate fraud as consumers may fall victim to scams when looking for deals online, become more susceptible to rogue traders, or turn to illegal moneylenders and loan sharks. Officers anticipate spending more time dealing with fraud and having less time to advise businesses that want to be compliant.

At the same time, people who become unemployed may start up their own businesses, leading to increased demand for inspections. The challenge will be balancing these competing workloads, especially as inspectors have an increased demand on their time with fewer resources.

3. Policing online marketplaces and social selling

As businesses continue to invest in online marketplaces over bricks and mortar stores, are unregulated companies and sellers causing you and your citizens pain? Responsibility for handling complaints about online services may not be clear if, for example, the offence took place in one local authority area, but the trader is based in another. It's something of a grey area that may need addressing through laws and local authority working practices. Trading standards is set up to protect local consumers and support local businesses, but those physical locations and boundaries don't exist in online and social selling.

Officers discussed some of the issues they face when trying to investigate complaints about online businesses:

  • The registered office address of an online trader may not reflect the trading address, making it hard to track them down
  • An online seller who needs inspecting may not respond to emails — if officers don't know where they're based, how do they pay an inspection visit?
  • It's easy for a sanctioned trader on a social network to reopen the next day under a different identity.

4. Attracting new talent and retaining experienced officers

How can the council encourage and attract new talent and retain existing officers? Attracting new talent starts with raising the profile of trading standards. Officers agreed that local authority jobs may not have the same appeal as they did in the past, so there's work to be done. Good apprenticeship schemes exist; and young people may be motivated by concepts like upholding ethical and fair trading, and preventing the exploitation of vulnerable individuals. It was suggested that trading standards as a career needs promoting at the national level.

It's also important to show new recruits that there's a long-term career path, but some officers commented that this structure has gone away in recent years. It's one reason why retaining senior officers can be challenging, with the associated risk of losing years of experience. Senior investigators working alongside police superintendents and other peers on complex organised crime cases know their pay scales simply don't stack up.

Key technologies that will help deliver future public services

Cloud-based and digital solutions are already helping stretched trading standards teams to deliver services to their communities more efficiently and effectively. True mobile capability, information accessible from home, and secure online portals for citizens and partners are just some of the solutions in use today.

Looking ahead, it may be time to consider how other innovative technologies can support the critical work of trading standards and wider public protection teams. Here at Civica we're investigating opportunities around:

  • Augmented and virtual reality (AR, VR) — transforming the use of data, raising performance and offering better services more efficiently
  • Conversational AI — advanced chatbots that enable individuals to interact with computer applications as they would with people
  • Machine learning — allowing applications to become more accurate at predicting outcomes and open new possibilities to drive positive change
  • Connected devices — the provision of real-time data and connectivity to build a smarter future
  • Blockchain and crypto — for a new generation of transactional applications that establish trust, accountability and transparency
  • Identity management — protecting online identities and supporting the shift to digital government.

Get in touch to find out how Civica can help you manage the transformational change needed.

Get in touch