Case name & citation: Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain v Boots Cash Chemists (Southern) Ltd  1 QB 401;  1 All ER 482
Decided on: 5 February 1953
Jurisdiction: High Court; The Court of Appeal, England
The bench of judges: Somervell LJ, Birkett LJ and Romer LJ
Area of law: Offer and invitation to treat
What is the case about?
Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain v Boots Cash Chemists (Southern) Ltd  is one of the most popular cases under contract law that differentiates between an offer and an invitation to treat (offer).
Facts of the case (Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain v Boots)
In the given case, the defendant (Boots Cash Chemists) ran a business and operated a self-service pharmacy shop. Goods were displayed on the shelves of the defendant’s shop for sale, with price tags attached to each article. The customers used to select and pick medicines for purchase and take them to the cashier for the payment of the price.
The plaintiff (Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain) objected to this method of maintaining a pharmacy store. It brought proceedings against the defendant. The defendant was accused of selling the drugs without the supervision of a pharmacist as required under Section 18(1) of the Pharmacy and Poisons Act 1933. Section 18(1) requires the supervision of a registered pharmacist when selling any item listed under the Act’s Schedule of poisons.
Issue raised in “Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain v Boots Cash Chemists”
Whether a contract of sale was formed when the customers picked up the goods from the shelves?
Was there a violation of the Pharmacy and Poisons Act 1933?
Contentions of the parties
The plaintiff asserted that the display of products in a shop with price chits attached constitutes an offer to sell and that picking up items amounts to an acceptance of this offer. It argued that Boots Cash Chemists was violating the terms of the Pharmacy and Poisons Act 1933 as there was no supervision of a pharmacist during the sale of the products listed under the Act’s Schedule of poisons. Customers picked up items from the shelves of the store and it resulted in effecting a transaction (offer and acceptance).
The defendant (shopkeeper), on the other hand, contended that the display of products in the shop only constituted an invitation to offer and that the consumer who takes up an article makes an offer to purchase that may or may not be accepted at the billing place.
The decision was taken in favor of the defendant.
It was decided that displaying goods in a shop with price chits attached is not an offer, even if the shop runs on a “self-service” system.
It was held, that in this case there was only an invitation to offer and not an offer itself. When a customer picks up an item, the shopkeeper cannot be compelled to sell the goods at the price indicated. That is to say, the contract was made, not when the customer selected the goods, but when the cashier accepted the offer to buy and receive the price.
Further, as far as the requirements of the Pharmacy and Poisons Act 1933 were concerned, it was established that there was a registered pharmacist at the cashier point of the shop. There was, therefore no offense, since the ‘sale’, that is the offer and acceptance, used to take place at the cashier point where a registered pharmacist was situated.
Observations by Court in “Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain v Boots Cash Chemists”
The Court stated that a shopkeeper’s price list is not an offer, but rather an invitation to prospective consumers to make an offer to purchase at the given rates. Likewise, displaying goods in a store with price chits attached is not an offer. It would be incorrect to argue that the shopkeeper is making an offer to sell every item in the shop to any customer who walks in and that the customer can insist on buying any item by stating “I accept your offer”……
In most bookstores, customers are welcome to go in and pick up books and look at them even though they do not actually purchase them. There is no contract by the shopkeeper to sell until the customer has taken the book to the shopkeeper and asked “I want to buy this book” and the shopkeeper responds “yes”. Moreover, a shopkeeper on seeing the book picked up could also say “I am afraid, I cannot let you have that book; it is the only copy I have with me and I have already promised it to sell to another customer”.
In the instant case, the mere fact that a customer simply picks up a bottle of medicine off the shelf does not constitute an acceptance of an offer to sell. Contrary to this, it is an offer to buy made by the customer, and no sale is said to occur until the buyer’s offer to buy is acknowledged by the acceptance of the price.
Ordinary principles of common sense and of commerce should be used in this case and holding the notion that in the case of self-service shops, the exposure of an article is an offer to sell and that a person can accept the offer merely by picking up the article would be contrary to those principles and could have serious consequences. One of these consequences is quite obvious i.e., a shopkeeper usually has a limited stock of goods. The other potential consequence would be that if once a consumer picked up an item, he would never be able to change his mind and put it back; the shopkeeper could argue, “Oh no, the property has passed and you must pay the price.”
It is quite common to notice that shopkeepers typically put their products on display in showcases with price tags attached. But in these cases, the shopkeeper is not providing an offer that you can accept. In reality, he is asking you to make an offer, which he may or may not accept. The shopkeeper cannot be compelled and he is not under any obligation to sell the items in the showcase at the market price.
Similar to this, quotes, catalogues, price lists, for-sale adverts in newspapers, and circulars delivered to potential customers, none of these things constitute offers. Rather they are only an invitation to treat.
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