Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain v. Boots Cash Chemists [1952]

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This case turns on s. 18(1) of the Pharmacy and Poisons Act which provides:

“ it shall not be lawful….for a person to sell any poison included in Part I of the Poison List, unless …the sale is effected by, or under the supervision of, a registered pharmacist.”

The defendants have adopted what is called a “self-service” system in some of their shops. The system of self-service consists in allowing persons who resort to the shop to go to shelves where goods are exposed for sale and marked with the price. They take the article required and go to the cash desk, where the cashier or assistant sees the article, states the price, and takes the money. In the part of the defendants’ shop which is labelled “Chemist’s dept.” there are on certain shelves ointments and drugs, some of which contain poisonous substances but in such minute quantities that there is no acute danger. These substances come within Part I of the Poisons List, but the medicines in the ordinary way may be sold without a doctor’s prescription and can be taken with safety by the purchaser. There is no suggestion that the defendants expose dangerous drugs for sale. Before any person can leave with what he has bought he has to pass the scrutiny and supervision of a qualified pharmacist.

The question for decision is whether the sale is completed before or after the intending purchaser has paid his money, passed the scrutiny of the pharmacist, and left the shop, or, in other words, whether the offer out of which the contract arises is an offer of the purchaser or an offer of the seller.

In Carlill v. Carbolic Smoke Ball Co. [1893], a company offered compensation to anybody who, having used the carbolic smoke ball for a certain length of time in a prescribed manner, contracted influenza. One of the inducements held out to people to buy the carbolic smoke ball was a representation that it was a specific against influenza. The plaintiff used it according to the prescription, but, nevertheless, contracted influenza. She sued the Carbolic Smoke Ball Co. for the compensation and was successful. Court decision:

“where a person in an offer made by him to another person, expressly or impliedly intimates a particular mode of acceptance as sufficient to make the bargain binding, it is only necessary for the other person to whom such offer is made to follow the indicated method of acceptance; and if the person making the offer, expressly or impliedly intimates in his offer that it will be sufficient to act on the proposal without communicating acceptance of it to himself, performance of the condition is a sufficient acceptance without notification.”

Counsel for the plaintiffs says that what the defendants did was to invite the public to come into their shop and to say to them: “Help yourself to any of these articles, all of which are priced,” and that was an offer by the defendants to sell to any person who came into the shop any of the articles so priced. Counsel for the defendants, on the other hand, contends that there is nothing revolutionary in this kind of trading, which, he says, is in no way different from the exposure of goods which a shop keeper sometimes makes outside or inside his premises, at the same time leaving some goods behind the counter.

It is a well-established principle that the mere fact that a shop keeper exposes goods which indicate to the public that he is willing to treat does not amount to an offer to sell. I do not think I ought to hold that there has been here a complete reversal of that principle merely because a self-service scheme is in operation. In my opinion, what was done here came to no more than that the customer was informed that he could pick up an article and bring it to the shop-keeper, the contract for sale being completed if the shop-keeper accepted the customer’s offer to buy. The offer is an offer to buy, not an offer to sell. The fact that the supervising pharmacist is at the place where money has to be paid is an indication that the purchaser may or may not be informed that the shop keeper is willing to complete the contract.

One has to apply ordinary principles of commerce in this matter. If one were to hold that in the case of self service shops the contract was complete directly the purchaser picked up the article, serious consequences might result. The property would pass to him at once and he would be able to insist on the shop keeper allowing him to take it away, even where the shop-keeper might think it very undesirable. On the other hand, once a person had picked up an article, he would never be able to put it back and say that he had changed his mind. The shop-keeper could say that the property had passed and he must buy.

It seems to me, therefore, that it makes no difference that a shop is a self-service shop and that the transaction is not different from the normal transaction in a shop. The shop-keeper is not making an offer to avail every article in the shop to any person who may come in, and such person cannot insist on buying by saying: “I accept your offer.” Books are displayed in a bookshop and customers are invited to pick them up and look at them even if they do not actually buy them. There is no offer of the shop-keeper to sell before the customer has taken the book to the shop-keeper or his assistant and said that he wants to buy it and the shopkeeper has said: “Yes.” That would not prevent the shop-keeper, seeking the book picked up, from saying: “I am sorry I cannot let you have that book. It is the only copy I have got, and I have already promised it to another customer.”

 Therefore, in my opinion, the mere fact that a customer picks up a bottle of medicine from a shelf does not amount to an acceptance of an offer to sell, but is an offer by the customer to buy. I feel bound also to say that the sale here was made under the supervision of a pharmacist. There was no sale until the buyer’s offer to buy was accepted by the acceptance of the purchase price, and that took place under the supervision of a pharmacist. Therefore, judgment is for the defendants.

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