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Mind your T&Cs when shopping online

Hands holding a tiny book

While British consumers are clued up when it comes to reading the terms and conditions of things we buy face to face, it seems we just can’t be bothered with the small print when we shop online.

Some research carried out by investment firm Skandia found that only 7% of Brits read the T&Cs when buying things online. The other 93% just tick the ‘I agree’ box and merrily spend away in cyberspace.

This I can understand. The habits we have when consuming online are far different from those we have when we’re actively out shopping. Firstly, there’s the tangibility aspect – when you can see, feel, wear or ride your purchase, you want to know that you’re doing the right thing. And that often means checking to see if you can get your money back if you’re dissatisfied.

But buying online’s a different kettle of fish. It’s fluid, swift and immediate – you don’t want to be faffing around squinting at the screen reading the small print when you’ve got emails to read or (in my case) pictures of cats in jumpers to look at.

Ignore the small print at your peril

However, as online consumption continues to rocket, ignoring T&Cs is increasingly starting to have a detrimental effect. Skandia’s research shows that one in five of us have suffered as a result of ticking the terms and conditions box without having done our homework before buying.

I’ve had first-hand experience of this. When I bought my snazzy smartphone online, I took out a two-year contract with my network. I was happy with the deal, but in my haste to get it and start playing around with its apps and camera, I didn’t realise the phone itself only came with a one-year warranty.

Now one of the buttons doesn’t work but because I’ve had the phone for over a year, it’ll cost me a fortune to get it fixed. I’ve got to turn the blasted thing on and off every time I want to get into a different part – especially annoying when I lose my score on an epic game of Angry Birds just because I want to send a text.

Naturally, I called my provider to complain but was told it was spelled out in the T&Cs, and indeed it was. My ignorance has left me with a redundant piece of kit and severely diminished gaming ability.

What would make us read the small print?

But what if it was an expensive holiday that you had to cancel, and you didn’t realise you couldn’t change the dates? Or an investment fund you’d bought, only to find out that when markets fall, you can’t get your cash back? Or that smashed car window that wasn’t covered? This is when disregarding the fine print can really hit you hard.

Perhaps it’s our responsibility to make sure we understand the terms of purchase when shopping online and we should be more vigilant? But Skandia thinks that providers should be getting rid of jargon and making things clearer to people. It’s even enlisted the venerable Clive Anderson to record a video reading its T&Cs to raise awareness.

But would we really be more engaged if there was a celeb, like Stephen Fry or Jonathan Ross, reading terms and conditions to us? If so, who would you want to do it? And have you had a bad shopping experience online because you weren’t clued up on the details under the bonnet?

Deepestbluetoo says:
24 May 2011

Interesting, I’m surprised that you did not pursue your claim using the Sale and Supply to the Consumer Regulations 2002, now incorporated into the Supply of Goods Act.

Philip Herlihy says:
25 May 2011

I almost never read T&Cs when shopping online. Some would take 20 minutes to read and seem designed not to be read. Exceptions are things like insurance policies and travel arrangements, where the terms are critical to what you’re buying. For everything else, life’s simply too short.

Craig Findlay says:
25 May 2011

I agree with Philip, the T&C’s are several pages long with bla bla bla and buried somewhere deep in there is the information that you want to see. Retails should be forced into simplifying and shortening the T&C’s, then I am many more people would read them. They are design, I am sure, to discourage people for even starting. However, I will pay more attention in the future. I guess the issue is that if you don’t like them, you have to either lump it or leave it.

I am not a lawyer. I should not need to read a set of many many contradicting/subclausing paragraphs before buying on the web anymore than when I buy in a shop. This is not a business to business contract, but a simple consumer transaction.

If any basic restrictions eg less then the term of the contract warrenty (um.. its part of the contract of supply.. so implicitly covered, no?) then these should be clear simple statements not a paragraph. If it is not a one (head) liner, then it is an unfair contract condition, perhaps ?

Agreed, international purchases may be an issue, but perhaps poor old credit cards and their protection come into play – certainly whatever the location of the business is should for legal recompense and T&C.

Why should buying on the web be any different than buying in a shop ?

Sybilmari says:
25 May 2011

Much of the small print can be skimmed through as it is standard stuff. However, I always read the Terms and Conditions before placing an order online. I would say that the majority of companies I have dealt with have illegal T&C as they contravene the Sale of Goods and Distance Selling regulations. I know where I stand with purchases and refunds (thanks to help from Legal Which) and that I can get my money back when I have to. It can be a nuisance though – so I would prefer it if ALL online companies were made to print the real regulations – not their own T&Cs which they seem to think can override the Law. Sometimes they can be obnoxious about it e.g. Wolverine London (Hush Puppies) but if you ask your bank they can help with getting money returned.

H R Dhokia says:
25 May 2011

Almost everyone does not read the T&Cs ever. As someone said earlier – they are designed not to be read, they are designed to be as off-putting as possible so that the companies can get away with murder and they do – because we do not read the T&Cs. If we did then half of us would not bother to buy anything on line or from their site. They rely on the verbosity possible on the net to make you skip the reading them. However, for those out there who do seriously want to read in order to find out where they stand but are put off by the sheer volume or standard rubbish made boring, here’s a tip on how to find the clauses on subjects that are important.

Just simply copy and paste the T&Cs to a word document and do a search by keyword(s) in the subject that is important to you; eg. returns policy, refunds, liability, guarantee, responsibility, duty, reasonable, cover, charges…etc. This will take you to the important bits which you may then read in detail or skim over and find out just how the scales are weighed in your favour or theirs.

For example if you read the T&Cs for your contract with your bank re: online banking you will find, in 99% of the cases, that ultimately you are not covered for anything whatsoever going wrong. No matter whose fault it is, they will turn it around and make it look like it is yours.

Problem is, if you find something on-line £20 cheaper than elsewhere, but you’ve read the T&C’s, and, (speaking for myself) are not really sure you understand the detail, (and thats where the `devil` is) what do you do?.
My personal experience is similar to the Which? team, your’e just as likely to have problems with a retailer as you are with an on-line supplier.

I believe the responibilty lies with all suppliers of goods and services to simplify their terms – no, I will reword that – they need to WRITE out the terms in a simpler manner. The terms that are significant should be highligted separately, away from all the dross. So if the insurnace runs out in 12 months IT SHOULD SAY SO IN BIG BOLD LETTERS! Surely we the consumer can’t read every t&c tha tcomes our way? Every time my bank or my credit card provider changes some condition I receive a booklet that is at least 16 pages!