/ Money, Shopping

Why online marketplaces need more regulation

In recent years there has been rapid growth in the number of people buying from online marketplaces, including sites like eBay and Amazon Marketplace, with over 90% of people in the UK having bought from one.

The choice and convenience offered by these sites means they are no longer a novel way of shopping for millions of people, but a part of everyday life.

Yet through our testing work, Which? has repeatedly found alarming evidence of unsafe and illegal products being sold on many of the biggest online marketplaces, putting countless people at risk and resulting in hundreds of listings being removed from the sites.

Serious safety concerns that we have uncovered include:

Gaps in protection

The failure of the product safety system to keep pace with people’s changing shopping habits has resulted in critical gaps in consumer protections. 

Online marketplaces are not currently responsible for ensuring the safety of products sold on their sites, removing unsafe products from sale or notifying customers when something goes wrong.

Regulation of online marketplaces has also failed to keep pace with consumers’ expectations, with many people assuming that the sites are responsible for ensuring safety and 70% of marketplace shoppers telling us they think the law needs changing so that this is the case.

Take responsibility

That’s why we’re calling on the next government to take action to give online marketplaces – some of the biggest companies in the world – more responsibility for the safety of products sold on their sites, so that people can be confident they are only buying safe products. 

We also need an enforcement system, including Trading Standards and the Office for Product Safety and Standards, that has the powers, tools and resources to effectively police the sites, taking action when people are put at risk.

Read more about what we’re calling for in our news story

Who do you feel should be responsible for the safety of products sold in online marketplaces? (choose all that apply)
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Have you purchased an unsafe product on an online marketplace before, or worried about potentially doing so?

Who do you think should be responsible for product safety online, and why do you think so?

Tell us your story in the comments below.

Comments

When asked to vote for all that apply, I ticked manufacturer, seller, marketplace and government. However the next screen tells me I can only vote for one, so, make up your minds which, Which?
As regards the article, yes. In the high street and mall shops would be prosecuted for selling dangerous goods and the trading standards department would (should) step in. The general public have no reliable way of knowing what is unsatisfactory until they have bought the product and found out the hard way when it arrives at the door. Eventually enough people are fooled to cause the rest to avoid that product, though fake reviews don’t help. From that sequence, it is clear that it is far too easy to make and sell rubbish and dangerous rubbish. If the manufacturer is unscrupulous -and untouchable in China – then the seller is the next one to blame. If they are untouchable – in China – then the marketplace has a duty to intervene, because they are touchable and should be touched when ever they fail. Of course this means that every marketplace has to inspect every product it sells, and if that goes into millions of products that’s not easy. Somewhere along the line, someone must look at what is being sold before it gets to the consumer. Is this possible? Can the Government do this with every container that gets to the port? It would seem that it is only when something catches fire, is shown to be a fake or it breaks on first use, is it picked up and by that time, many have bought it. Perhaps Which? can suggest how we can strengthen the system as it campaigns on our behalf.

I just voted exactly the same as you Vynor and got the ‘maximum number of choices allowed: 1’ reply.

As to how I broke that poll, I have no idea, however it’s fixed now. Sorry about that, you should be able to vote and choose multiple answers as you’d expect.

No, it isn’t. After inserting one tick, it jumped up to the top of the topic. Never allowed me to submit.

I found a different problem. It did not show my choices in italics, as most polls do. In experimenting, I seem to have been allowed to vote several times.

These appear to be two in the same problem – for whatever reason the HTML tags in the poll title appear to be dropping the close anchor tag, and this has been turning the ensuing text into one link that points back to the top of the Conversation. Where this link appears hasn’t been consistent – sometimes it’s every poll option, others it’s just the header, and sometimes it extends beyond to the bottom of the conversation itself.

I’ve removed the link from the poll, so this should rectify the jump to the top, and am testing for the multiple vote issue as well to see if it’s persisting. Sorry about the inconvenience on this, grateful for your patience.

The manufacturer is legally responsible for its products being safe, as is a seller. Trading Standards is intended to provide enforcement, carry out market surveillance and deal with problems such as counterfeit goods, although it is not provided with adequate funding to do this, thanks to the deficiencies of a succession of governments.

The biggest uncertainty, in my mind, is the legal responsibility of the marketplace. When I contacted Amazon over a safety issue, I was told to deal with the marketplace trader. I believe that Amazon should take full responsibility for dealing with safety issues and other problems. To give an analogy, if I bought a kitchen the company I paid would be responsible if their plumber or electrician did a poor job.

In addition to all the the options in the survey above, I think householders must also accept some responsibility for the safety of the items that they buy.

As a motorcyclist, I’m well aware that the poor driving of other road users might easily cause accidents in which I could be injured or even killed. But rather than choosing to just blame those others, I opt to ride defensively, so that I can allow for the poor safety performance of others.

We need to make sure that goods offered for sale are safe, irrespective of source. How does someone know if a phone charger is safe? I would not want to live in a flat or tower block if other residents were using dodgy electrical goods that could set fire to the place.

wavechange, I think a good way to sure of buying a safe phone charger would be to go to a reputable retailer and buy one of a reputable brand from there.

Actually, most new phones still come with chargers, so the best way would be buy a phone that comes with a charger and then take care of it. Judging by the pile in my old phones drawer, the chargers usually last me longer than the phones.

That’s what I do too, Derek. In fact I have just paid £79 to that rip-off company Apple for a laptop charger. I could have paid less from other sources but the high price of Apple accessories has resulted in the market being flooded with counterfeit products that may not be safe.

Even if we are careful about what we buy and look after it, the problem remains that those who don’t understand or care about these issues could harm themselves or others, which is why I mentioned residents in flats and tower blocks.

Not the best analogy. How would you know if your motorbike is safe to drive? Most products don’t undergo MOT and are not subjected to strict tests as cars and motorbikes. How would anybody know cadmium levels in a lovely toy?

Frenske – these analogies are seldom ever perfect.

If I already own a motorbike, then I’m responsible for maintaining it and keeping it in MoT’s and insurance. If I want to buy another one, where might I best go to do that?

But suppose, for example, I were buying a secondhand iPhone. Would I buy it online from someone I’ve never met or from a local shop, where I could easily look it over before purchase and/or take it back if any problems? Which of those approaches would be more risky? How, if at all, could I mitigate my risks in either case?

Duncan – Every home should have a portable XRF analyser, but Frenske was making a serious point. There is no way of knowing whether products are safe or not.

Derek – We hope that well known companies will take safety seriously, but sometimes it can be a challenge. About six years ago I wanted to buy a set of LED Christmas lights but knew nothing about which brand to buy. If the power supply does not contain a fuse or other protection, it could melt or go on fire.

I maintain that we should be entitled to buy safe products. The consumer can do their bit by checking for damage and using them as specified by the manufacturer.

“The manufacturer is legally responsible for its products being safe,“. I’d suggest that depends upon the country of the manufacturer, their attitude to such matters, the standards they observe (if any), for example. There is nothing to stop a “delinquent” manufacturer from making what they like and trying to sell it. And, even if they work to standards, what is regarded as safe in one country may well be regarded as unsafe in another.

But, to us in the UK (EU for now), what matters is compliance with our own regualtions and safety standards. It is who attempts to put those products on the market in destination countries – the importer / distributor / seller for example – that matters and hold responsibility. It is our regulations and standards that decide the safety of products that are acceptable to us; only those that comply can legally be put on our market. It is here we must focus our attention.

It seems Amazon have an LED transformer that “sounds” bullet prove Wavechange-
https://www.amazon.co.uk/flat-24V-Transformer-skinny-ultraflat/dp/B01B6GFAJM?ref_=fsclp_pl_dp_13

Thanks Duncan. I don’t know whether this is better or worse than the one I chose. Our present system requires compliance with published standards and we cannot be sure if companies comply.

Amazon and eBay safety issues spark Which? call for stronger regulation of marketplaces
20 November 2019
Amazon and eBay are failing to take basic steps to stop listing toys for sale that appear to have been declared unsafe by the EU’s safety alert system, according to a Which? investigation.
The consumer champion is now calling on the next government to make online marketplaces legally responsible for stopping dangerous products from being sold.

https://press.which.co.uk/whichpressreleases/amazon-and-ebay-safety-issues-spark-which-call-for-stronger-regulation-of-marketplaces/

I’m pleased to see this and hope Which? have success. A pity Trading Standards appear unable to take action.

There will always be delinquent manufacturers who choose to manufacture dangerous, unsafe products. We will never stop that. However, for those products that are subject to regulation in the EU, it is illegal to put those products on the market. Therefore those who distribute them – import, sell – are responsible for their provenance. This includes checking that the products comply with the necessary standards and regulations, usually done by examining the declarations of conformity that the manufacturer produces. The delinquent manufacturer will fake this documentation so the distributor must take due diligence to ensure authenticity by whatever means – and if he is not satisfied should decline to distribute.

We then need a proper policing system – such as Trading Standards should operate if they were properly resourced – to check suspect importers and products, react to public reports of problem products, and, crucially, impose severe penalties on those who fail. Make careless or criminal trading not financially worthwhile.

This should apply to market places who facilitate this trade, particularly when they hold stock, take payment and distribute.

eBay said: “Sellers aren’t permitted to list dangerous products on eBay,”
Amazon said: “All sellers must follow our selling guidelines and those who do not will be subject to action including potential removal of their account.”

Clearly there are sellers who do not obey eBay and Amazon so their policing of their systems is inadequate. A rather pointless response.

Distributors – and I regard eBay and Amazon as just that – must obey EU regulations for the products they distribute. We need to hold them properly to account to ensure they, in turn, are careful with the integrity of their sellers

Which? product reviews on the website frequently suggest Amazon Marketplace in their lists of where to buy? In view of the problems with marketplace sellers I suggest getting rid of these recommendations.

Which? claims independence but I reckon that suggesting any retailers compromises this competence. Users of the reviews can surely manage to do their own web searches and decide which company to buy from.

As we have seen before, they are not necessarily the cheapest, nor are the products a best buy, even though we are directed there by Which? And, in view of their poor control of product safety, perhaps we should not be encouraged to deal with them except for well-known products until proper controls are in place.

I wrote: “Which? claims independence but I reckon that suggesting any retailers compromises this competence.” That should read: “…that compromises this independence.”

Which is doing what many websites do promoting products that can generate revenue Wavechange , while I am critical of many US companies I have to be fair and say most other websites promote behind the scenes in subtle advertising /links to companies /etc most US companies are absolutely frank and say they are sponsored/financed by Google/Microsoft and yes even Amazon .
Its not come to the stage yet of getting booted off Which just because you criticise an income helper . Its nearly 2020 and this country is run by a very big business friendly government , many government services are “contracted out ” or NGO-,d to organisations using third parties to help them be financed that’s capitalism and to me no surprise I am just being practical .
As I have said before many times just spend months/years on US websites and even some high tech ones and try and criticise the “big boys ” there would be a very big put down from the posters and moderator as “brand loyalty ” is big there .
Which is really quite moderate from what I have seen in the USA, to really criticise them you have to be a US government website or a US “Rights Group ” website many Americans are proud to be associated with big US companies and I don’t blame them I just wish the same applied here to British companies but big US advertising has struck here, many UK citizens have loyalty to US companies as well , another 10/20years or so and thinking in a public group social sense in Britain will be “American ” .

Taking revenue in the way you suggest would be against the principles of Which?, in my view, as it needs to remain independent of (the potential for) commercial influence. I have no objection to being given information on the best places to buy something.

Well how about ,again how they do it in America —Appear to be independent nowadays its all about outward appearance and little about what goes on behind the scenes, I know that’s a bit hypocritical but that’s how the western world is running at the moment so I find it hard to criticise Which when all around it most charities are full of commercialism Malcolm .
Purity doesn’t exist any more , idealism hardly applies in this day and age , I am a Realist this country is integrated much more than you think with the USA and unceasingly follows its lead ,isn’t it a bit anachronistic to expect perfection in any public organisation in this country ?
The future in the UK is that those massive companies will take over commercialism here cant you see already the hold they have people identify with MacDonald’s and the national identity is becoming America in expression ?
I honestly see into a future UK as a satellite of the USA call it what name you will . Just ask the government and the City its just more and more integration .

When buying products I take other things into account, other than price. By listing Amazon Marketplace and Currys in ‘Where to buy’ it is promoting places that have come in for significant criticism here. Anyone with the most basic computer skills will be able to find and compare prices. What we have at present compromises the claimed independence of Which?

I think it was Patrick Taylor who told us that Which? received funding from Pricerunner.

At least we know that companies pay to be featured in the Which? Trusted Trader scheme and are assessed to check their competence.

Actually, I think it is useful for Which? to show where particular appliances can be purchased. They (pretty much) have to do this if they test things like Argos, John Lewis and Currys own brands, so why not also show where to get good deals on alternatives?

That said, I think Which? should avoid advertising revenue or sponsorship from manufacturers and retailers. Otherwise, conflicts of interest can occur.

Also, whilst I realise the the internet is a thing now, I do wonder if Which? gives undue bias in favour of Amazon and Amazon market place relative to other online vendors. As shown by other convos here, there are still unaddressed problems of online retailers trying to sell non-UK specification products to UK consumers, even where these breach UK safety regulations.

Duncan has suggested that Which? is promoting certain retailers in order to generate revenue, from a form of sales commission presumably. I personally doubt this but it is a fair comment.

I hope that it is not the case and that there is no commercial influence over how Which? gives consumers advice on where to buy things because that would be wholly outwith the Which? philosophy and principles.

Where there are breaches of regulations or unfair trading Which? needs to stand up to those companies robustly and initiate action against them if necessary which, if there are no commercial considerations compromising its position, it can do without fear or favour.

The fact is that for many people now in our desertified retail landscape the only convenient places to buy some products at good value prices are the likes of Amazon and Currys PC World.

@jon-stricklin-coutinho, morning Jon 🙂 . Would you like to comment on the suggestion made earlier that “Which is doing what many websites do promoting products that can generate revenue….“. Do Which? benefit financially when they list Amazon for a product and a visitor to the Which? website either clicks on a link and/or buys the product via a link?

It can also be the other way around Malcolm at least one small search engine gets paid a minute amount/click to promote Which on its webpages by bigger headings etc .
With my blockers I have trouble accessing the advertised ones as they use -“double click ” and advertising servers but as I have always said that is nothing compared with big company advertising via search engines of the much larger variety “guiding you ” to third party advertising for profit putting the payers at the top of webpages where you would be naturally inclined to click on.
Malcolm there is a whole tech world of behind the scenes activity when it comes to generating profit and in its limited capacity I think Which is doing a well thought out plan.

I do not know what Which?’s “plan” is Duncan.

If Which? effectively pays a website to advertise itself by enhanced “promotion” I’m fine with that. We need a much larger membership to make Which? even more effective. Every little helps.

Hi everyone,

I will be passing on all these comments on to the team who deal with the links to where to buy.

We do make money from these link and, as you know, it goes straight back in to the organisation and helps us do all the work you see. The other element is that it is something that many members want to see. Please be assured there is a very large firewall between the testing teams and the teams that deal with affiliate links and the endorsement scheme as our independence is one of our biggest priorities.

The point about listing retailers we have highlighted issues with is an interesting one and I will raise it for discussion.

It is difficult to claim independence if a revenue stream is generated in the way suggested, as Which? will have some dependence upon those providing the money – by needing to sustain the income.

” it is something that many members want to see.“. I’d suggest members want to see links – of course they are useful – but I doubt members who think about the possible consequences would want Which? to be “rewarded” by a commercial organisation such as Amazon for directing members to them, ignoring other possibly better sources. When I looked at such a promotion by Which? last year, products promoted by direct links to Amazon were available cheaper elsewhere, and many were not recommended best buy products by Which?. That approach seems not to be in the interests of consumers.

I raised a similar concern about Which? mortgage advisers. They claimed none of their advisers worked on commission – true. However, commissions were paid to Which? for their financial services by some of the mortgage companies. It is hard to imagine that this source of revenue was ignored in their business plan, particularly for a company struggling financially.

I do not think commercial reward from such sources should play any part on Which?’s income if it is to be seen as totally independent.

Thanks Abby. I have no objection to Which? comparing retailers. The regular reports on customer satisfaction are useful and it would be really useful to have a report on how well they handle problems with faulty electrical goods. Which? did report on this some years ago and did a follow-up report a year later, but I don’t remember any similar investigation since then.

I am not comfortable with Abby’s explanation of Which?’s commercial arrangements and it smacks of complacency.

I believe these arrangements – that so far as I am aware have not previously been disclosed and only now obscurely – do compromise Which?’s independence and objectivity. I am worried that it might have inhibited effective action on two of the major issues that have been brought to attention in the last two or three years, but without resolution, involving Currys PC World upselling computer set-up services in a possibly deceitful manner, and Amazon continuing to market electrical products in the UK with non-compliant plugs and not offering a correct remedy in the event of a complaint. There are other examples that have been referred to in Which? Conversation.

It’s all very well saying that the increased revenue enables Which? to do all the work we see. Given a choice between some of the work carried out and monetising Which’s unique covenant I would prefer a pure approach even if that curtailed or eliminated some of the more marginal activities. It is not the testing that I think is at risk but Which?’s precious reputation for honest and impartial guidance to consumers. I am afraid the ends do not always justify the means.

Hi @johnward, We do have a disclaimer saying we receive payment for affiliate links on the pages themselves.

https://www.which.co.uk/reviews/fridge-freezers/aeg-rmb76111nx/compare-prices

This is not really a “disclaimer” but a statement that Which? receive payment for providing used links that are used by customers:

The retailers shown are supplied by PriceRunner.co.uk. This may not include every retailer selling the product online. When a retailer link is followed we receive a payment from PriceRunner, irrespective of whether a purchase is made.

Which? is a participant in the Amazon EU Associates Programme, an affiliate programme designed to provide a means for sites to earn affiliate fees by linking to Amazon.co.uk. For products subsequently purchased via Amazon, we receive a payment from them rather than from PriceRunner.

The suspicion must always be that, as such revenue-earning links are important to Which?’s income, there may be bias in directing customers to such sellers. i believe we should sever Which? from such suspicion.

I see no valid reason why, apart from revenue, Which? should do this. Simply provide useful links without any “fees”. We must always wonder why Amazon, for example, has been fairly exempt from action by Which? in its sale of dangerous products, illegal 2-pin plugs.

Thank you Abby. I did some product searches for a number of different kitchen appliances and must admit that I did not notice the small [tiny] print containing the “disclaimer”. My mind was focussed on the product specifications and performance of the different machines.

I accept that there is a reference to a kick-back in some form to Which? and presume it is legally adequate.

When I use Which? to compare products I don’t click through to the retailer but I suppose many do creating a worthwhile revenue stream. I regret that commerce has descended into this kind of behind-the-scenes distortion of the open trading arrangement such that even Which? feels compelled to participate in an affiliate programme with giants like Amazon; it kind of undercuts the high moral stance that Which? tries to take on other issues [e.g. the death of the high street].

I would like to see the practice of affiliate payments for product referrals outlawed because it is not in consumers’ interests but, obviously, I cannot expect Which? to support that.

I have received copied product from prominent Sellers online. This has grown beyond control.

I am having a little difficulty reconciling Which?’s claims to give independent advice and protect the consumer from harm when they appear to be condemning Amazon’s bad behaviour (dangerous products, pricing claims) on the one hand, then promoting them and profiting financially from their relationship on the other:

1. Amazon’s best Black Friday deals chosen by Which? experts
Read more: https://www.which.co.uk/news/2019/11/amazons-best-black-friday-deals-chosen-by-which-experts/ – Which?

2. The great Black Friday swindle: Just one in 20 ‘deals’ cheapest on Black Friday, Which? finds
26 November 2019
https://press.which.co.uk/whichpressreleases/the-great-black-friday-swindle-just-one-in-20-deals-cheapest-on-black-friday-which-finds/

“Nearly all Black Friday ‘deals’ are cheaper or available for the same price at other times of the year, a new Which? investigation has found, as the consumer champion urges shoppers to do their research before buying.
The consumer champion looked at deals from retailers including Currys PC World, Amazon and John Lewis, and found just four (5%) products that were cheaper on Black Friday than at other times of the year.
• The Amazon Echo (2nd Gen) (Smart speaker with Alexa – charcoal fabric) was on offer at £54.99 (39% off) on Amazon but it was cheaper on at least 13 occasions before Black Friday.”

3. Amazon and eBay safety issues spark Which? call for stronger regulation of marketplaces
https://press.which.co.uk/whichpressreleases/amazon-and-ebay-safety-issues-spark-which-call-for-stronger-regulation-of-marketplaces/

4. “Which? is a participant in the Amazon EU Associates Programme, an affiliate programme designed to provide a means for sites to earn affiliate fees by linking to Amazon.co.uk. For products subsequently purchased via Amazon, we receive a payment from them……….

Indeed. On W?C, I think we have been aware of these issues for some time. I wonder how long it will be before one has to subscribe to Amazon’s consumer services division “Amazon Which?” in order to get pay-as-you go consumer advice?

The De’Longhi Autentica Cappucino Bean-to-Cup coffee maker was one I bought as a present last year. Curiously, it fell around £90 the week after the Black Friday sale, so I bought it then.

I agree about the oddities of the BF Sale, however; items are rarely cheaper than they are at other times of the year. In early October I penned a new topic on Amazon and it’s a mystery to me why it hasn’t yet appeared.

CONRAD32 received a copy product. This could be a counterfeit product, advertised as the genuine article or just a similar product that is not claimed to be genuine (underhand but not illegal). Counterfeit products should be reported to Trading Standards and it’s worth letting both the seller know that you have done this.