Online shopping is a modern day reality.  Despite its impersonal nature, the industry is growing and it allows the consumer to buy goods without the parking, queuing and general stress associated with conventional shopping.  However, many consumers are cautious about purchasing online and do not know where they stand legally if the item proves to be unsuitable or does not arrive to them within the time specified. This article will focus on the legal rights of the consumer and the remedies available to him/her when buying products over the Internet.

The European Communities (Protection of Consumers in Respect of Contracts Made by Means of Distance Communication) Regulations 2001 apply to any business supplying goods or services to consumers over the Internet.

These Regulations contain very stringent rules regarding what information must be disclosed by a supplier to a consumer who intends to make an online purchase and provides that if this information is not disclosed, the contract between both parties is unenforceable against the consumer.  The minimum information that must be provided is the following:

  • the identity of the supplier and, in the case of contracts requiring payment in advance, the supplier’s address;
  • the main characteristics of the goods or services;
  • the price of the goods or services including all taxes;
  • the arrangements for payment, delivery, or performance;
  • the existence of a right of cancellation
  • if the goods or services are being sold under “special offer”, the period for which the offer or the price remains valid
  • information on the right of cancellation
  • information relating to guarantees and after-sales service

The supplier has a maximum of thirty days to execute the contract.  If the goods have still not arrived, or the service has not been commenced within thirty days, the consumer is entitled to a full refund. If the goods or services purchased by the consumer are unavailable, the supplier must inform the consumer of this fact within 30 days. Similar goods or services may be provided instead – however, the consumer’s prior notice and consent must be given.

If the consumer wishes to return the goods without giving a specific reason, he or she may cancel the contract within seven working days.  The consumer is entitled to a full refund – the only costs which will not be refundable to the consumer are delivery costs and the cost of returning the item.  This is known as a “cooling off” period.

However, the consumer’s right to a “cooling-off” period does not apply where goods or services with a “sell-by” date have been bought online, for example, a lottery ticket, perishable goods or a newspaper.

Shopping online is undoubtedly an efficient, hassle-free and sometimes cheaper way of purchasing goods.  However, the above information must be borne in mind when purchasing over the internet, and of course, it goes without saying that it is essential that the consumer purchases from reputable sites only.