Alcohol Purchase Surveys


Alcohol purchase surveys, also known as compliance surveys, use young adults who appear—but are not—underage as decoys to attempt to purchase alcohol from retail stores. This strategy, which can reveal how easily available alcohol is to young people and who is selling it to them, can be used when compliance checks are not possible (e.g., law does not permit underage decoys to buy alcohol, lack of law enforcement capacity).


To limit commercial availability of alcohol to underage youth

Typical Elements

  • Buyers who are at least 21 years old but appear to be younger (around 18 to 19 years of age) (Grube & Stewart, 1999):
    • Equal numbers of male and female buyers who reflect the racial and/or ethnic composition of the community
    • Enough buyers to help control for variation in survey results due to buyer differences 
    • Objective rating of each buyer’s age to ensure that she or he looks younger than 21
  • Escorts (e.g., law enforcement officers) who will accompany buyers into alcohol outlets but will not attempt a purchase (optional). Escorts typically avoid wearing uniforms or visible identification or using official (e.g., police) cars when conducting a survey.
  • Buyer training (Grube & Stewart, 1999; Forster, Murray, Wolfson, & Wagenaar, 1995) that includes:
    • ​The purpose of, and what to expect from, alcohol purchase surveys.
    • Clear instructions for how to prepare for each purchase attempt (e.g., dress normally, do not carry IDs into stores).
    • Clear instructions for how to act (e.g., act normally, be honest if asked about age, do not attempt a purchase if a store employee is known) and a script for what to say (e.g., “I left my ID in the car.”) during each purchase attempt.
    • Purchase attempts practice (e.g., role-play) to help buyers feel comfortable and know what to expect. 
    • Guidance on keeping names of retail sites confidential.
    • Photographs of each buyer to record how she or he will look when entering an alcohol outlet.
    • Review of emergency protocol and collection of emergency contact information.
  • A list of all businesses licensed to sell alcohol in the geographic area or jurisdiction of interest. Random selection of outlets to target or targeted selection based on a past history of selling to minors (Forster et al., 1995).
    • Tip: Evidence from Oregon suggests that underage purchase rates tend to be highest in convenience and grocery stores (Paschall et al., 2007). Findings also suggest that illegal sales of alcohol are likely in highly populated areas of the community (Freisthler, Gruenewald, Treno, & Lee, 2003).
  • Alcohol purchase survey schedule that (Grube & Stewart, 1999):
    • Randomly assigns buyers to outlets within neighborhoods to which they are ethnically and/or racially matched.
    • Uses different buyers when making multiple buy attempts at each outlet.
    • Provides each purchase team (i.e., buyer and escort) with a schedule of their assigned days and times.
  • Monitoring activities using an easy-to-complete form and dissemination of results for educational purposes (Grube & Stewart, 1999):
    • Warning notice and educational materials to outlets that violated the law
    • Congratulatory or thank you letters to outlets that asked for age identification and did not sell to the buyers
    • Publication of the names and addresses of outlets that passed or failed the survey


  • Youth under age 21
  • Alcohol retailers


Use of alcohol purchase surveys have been associated with decreases in:

  • Alcohol sales to minors (Lewis et al., 1996)
  • Sales made without age identification (in New Zealand) between 2002 and 2003 followed by an increase in sales between 2003 and 2004 (Huckle, Greenaway, Broughton, & Conway, 2007)


Guide to Conducting Alcohol Purchase Surveys

Reducing Alcohol Sales to Underage Purchasers: A Practical Guide to Compliance Investigations


No recognition found for role of alcohol purchase surveys in preventing underage drinking and/or its consequences.


Forster, J. L., Murray, D. M., Wolfson, M., & Wagenaar, A. C. (1995). Commercial availability of alcohol to young people: Results of alcohol purchase attempts. Preventive Medicine, 24(4), 342–347.

Freisthler, B., Gruenewald, P. J., Treno, A. J., & Lee, J. (2003). Evaluating alcohol access and the alcohol environment in neighborhood areas. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, 27(3), 477–484.

Grube, J. W., & Stewart, K. (1999). Guide to conducting alcohol purchase surveys. Rockville, MD: Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation.

Huckle, T., Greenaway, S., Broughton, D., & Conway, K. (2007). The use of an evidence-based community action intervention to improve age verification practices for alcohol purchase. Substance Use & Misuse, 42(12–13), 1899–1914.

Lewis, R. K., Paine-Andrews, A., Fawcett, S. B., Francisco, V. T., Richter, K. P., Copple, B., & Copple, J. E. (1996). Evaluating the effects of a community coalition’s efforts to reduce illegal sales of alcohol and tobacco products to minors. Journal of Community Health, 21(6), 429–436.

Paschall, M. J., Grube, J. W., Black, C., Flewelling, R. L., Ringwalt, C. L., & Biglan, A. (2007). Alcohol outlet characteristics and alcohol sales to youth: Results of alcohol purchase surveys in 45 Oregon communities. Prevention Science, 8(2), 153–159.