Selling alcohol online: What licences do you need?
With pubs, taprooms and restaurants closing their doors for the foreseeable future, selling alcohol online could be an important lifeline for several beverage-based businesses. Here's all you need to know about the licences you'll need to do this safely and legally.
We are a team of writers, experimenters and researchers providing you with the best advice with zero bias or partiality.This article was co-authored by:
The coronoavirus, or Covid-19, has presented all of us with many unforeseen challenges. Business all over the world are trying to find creative ways to maintain their sales and continuity as they experience a lull in demand – and with all hospitality businesses having to close their doors (at least to sit-in customers) for the time being, those serving alcohol will likely want to make much more of their online sales channels than before.
Are you running a microbrewery looking to move those sales online? Or perhaps your gin distillery wants to start delivering its boozy botanics via an online ordering system.
Whatever your measure, here we'll be serving up licence advice by the bottle and have you in the know when it comes to the laws surrounding alcohol ecommerce in no time.
Much like selling from a physical premises, selling alcohol online does require legal permission in the form of licences – it’s a highly regulated product, after all. Read on to find out which licences you'll be needing to conduct your business lawfully.
The licences needed to sell alcohol online
In order to legally retail alcohol on the web, you’ll need a personal licence and a premises licence.
A personal licence grants you permission to manage and sell alcohol, while a premises licence names your business premises as a place where the dispatch of alcohol can legally take place. NB: you will need both in order to proceed with your business.
Getting a personal licence
Anyone with a Personal Licences is legally allowed to sell alcohol on behalf of any business (including online) as long as it has premises licence (this does not apply to some members' clubs or community premises).
The personal licence holder must authorise anyone in the business without the licece in order for them to be able to sell alcohol, online or otherwise.
Getting a personal licence is a two-step process:
- Applying for and obtaining the licence
Step 1: To get a personal licence, you’ll need to undertake a short training course and gain a licensing qualification, such as the Award for Personal Licence Holders.
Step 2: Once you’ve done this, you can apply for a personal licence through the licensing department of your local authority/council using this form (if you’re under 18 or have a relevant criminal conviction you won't be eligible for a personal licence).
For more information regarding obtaining a personal licence to sell alcohol, take a look at the Gov.uk page.
Getting a premises licence
Next, you’ll need to apply for a premises licence from your local authority/council, in compliance with The Licensing Act 2003. A premises licence can be granted to any fixed commercial property where the handling and dispatch of alcohol is taking place – including warehouses, storage facilities, shop floors and more.
All businesses selling alcohol (except some members clubs and community premises) must have an appointed Designated Premises Supervisor (DPS) that has been appointed for the relevant premises – this include businesses selling alcohol online. The person in this role must not only be nominated for it by the premises license holder, but must also hold a personal licence.
Unfortunately, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to run an online alcohol business from your house as local authorities don’t tend to grant licences to domestic dwellings. An outbuilding on your land, however, could be given a licence – as long as it has the relevant planning permission to operate as a commercial premises.
Along with your application form, you’ll need to submit a floorplan of your premises which highlights the areas where alcohol will be kept and handled.
As part of your application, you’ll need to describe how your business will comply with the four licensing objectives. These are:
- Prevention of crime and disorder
- Prevention of public nuisance
- Protection of children from harm
- Public safety
Objectives one, two and four are more relevant to businesses whose customers visit them on-premises, such as pubs, bars and shops, but you can still implement rules such as responsible business hours and a limit on how much any one customer can buy at a time – doing your bit to minimise any potentially harmful drunkenness.
When it comes to point three, though, you’ll need to be extra vigilant as it’ll fall under your responsibility to ensure you don’t sell alcohol to underage customers (more on that below).
Once you have your premises licence, as the personal licence holder you’ll need to take up the helm of the Designated Premises Supervisor; responsible for making sure all alcohol is handled, held and sold lawfully. You’ll be the first point of contact for authorities such as the police.
As your business grows, you may need other members of staff to also get a personal licence and share this responsibility.
Complying with UK law
It’s not enough to just hold the correct licences – you must also make sure your business is constantly trading in compliance with the law surrounding selling alcohol online. The key piece of legislation you’ll need to keep an eye on is ensuring you don’t sell to under-18s.
At the very least, you’ll need to have an over-18 declaration on your website, and ask for the customer to verify their age at the point of purchase. You might also be required to have your delivery drivers ask for ID when they deliver the package.
Check with your local authority to find out the specifics of what they’ll require from you.
Now you've got the legalities out of the way, it's time to build an online store for your booze.
We’d recommend using an ecommerce platform. It’s an easy way to create a professional looking and fully-functional online shop, even if you don’t have any coding knowledge.
But which ecommerce platforms allow you to sell alcohol?
- Square Online allows you to open a completely free online shop and sell alcohol online through its platform, as long as it's permitted by the law in your area. It offers several online alcohol ordering services for hospitality businesses, including curbside pickup options. You can take a look at the full support page for selling alcohol online with Square Online for more information.
- With a Squarespace store, the payment provider you use will dictate what kinds of products are prohibited. For example, Stripe specifically prohibits alcohol sales, but PayPal and ApplePay don’t
- Alcohol does fall under prohibited items on Shopify Payments, but you can sell it on the Shopify platform if you use a different payment provider. This means you would also avoid paying Shopify any additional credit card processing fees
- BigCommerce allows alcohol sales and even has a nice range of wine store templates you can use
Check out our full breakdown of the best ecommerce platforms for small businesses here.
Selling alcohol online, case study:
To get properly clued-up on what it's like to sell alcohol online, Startups.co.uk caught up with Nick Coleman, founder of Snaffling Pig: a business specialising in porky products that has recently branched out into complementary beverages to strengthen the brand.
Here's what Coleman had to say when we asked the following:
What are the biggest challenges to selling alcohol online?
“Licensing was the biggest lesson for us when we moved into alcohol. We were actually trading without an AWRS (Alcohol Wholesaler Registration Scheme) licence for a year having secured our personal and premises licences.
“It’s one of those classic startup errors – you don’t ask the question because you don’t know which questions to ask. It was only when a customer asked to see our licence that we realised we’d made a mistake so went straight to HMRC.
“If you’re launching a new product, do your due diligence. Check with your manufacturer, your partners, your suppliers. Google it then Google it again. Really, this should go for everything in your business.”
How do you ensure your customers are legally allowed to buy alcohol?
“We take this one incredibly seriously and you have to be completely responsible as a business here. We do it through due diligence on our website, making sure all customers are over 18 and the same when we deliver.
“We’ve also invested a lot in training our staff to ensure they understand the importance of making sure our customers are over-18. There’s times to wing it in a startup but this absolutely is not it.”
What advice would you give to budding entrepreneurs looking to expand their business by selling alcohol online?
“There’s a temptation to team up with existing, established brands when you’re adding in an alcohol line. Don’t – you’re basically growing someone else’s business for them. You want to sell your own product so that you grow your brand recognition and impact. The same goes for tying it into your core USP – make sure it fits. If you’re a sweet brand, it might not work too well.
“We’re lucky that pork scratchings and beer are a winning combo: as old as time. We wanted to re-ignite that lovely pairing for our customers. We set out to complement our core indulgent snacks product, make our gifting offer even better -alcohol’s always a great gift – and enhance the Snaffling Pig experience – cheeky, super-sociable moments with your mates. We teamed up with an award-winning master brewer and worked closely with them to develop the flavours for both our beer and cider ranges to create a quality, yet clearly complementary, product.”
The Licencing Act 2003 applies for England and Wales; licencing differs slightly for Scotland and Northern Ireland.