/ Shopping

We have to protect customers who shop using online marketplaces

With Christmas fast approaching, millions will enter the lottery of unsafe products sold through online marketplaces. Here’s why consumers deserve better.

With the cost of living increasing for the majority of consumers, it’s unsurprising that many are tempted to turn to what appears to be a bargain on an online marketplace. However far too often the result is a dud that is faulty and, in the worst case, could have been harmful.

Our product testing has uncovered a number of items that simply shouldn’t be up for sale on popular marketplaces that many of us use frequently, from teeth whiteners that burn gums to smoke alarms that don’t detect smoke. Why? because regulation and oversight have simply not kept pace with changes in consumer behaviour. 

For larger retailers, such as Tesco and John Lewis, that are well-acquainted with UK safety laws, consumers can be confident that the products they sell are unlikely to cause them harm. That’s not only because of the reputational damage they’d suffer if they were caught selling faulty or dangerous items, but crucially because they have a legal responsibility not to do so.

Third party sellers

But what about third party sellers on online marketplaces, many of whom are based abroad and operating on a massive scale, who too often don’t comply with safety regulations and are almost impossible to contact should things go wrong?

What many consumers don’t realise is online marketplaces have no legal responsibility to ensure these sellers are aware of UK safety standards and are meeting their requirements. As a result too many dangerous products appear on their sites leaving millions of consumers exposed to possible harm.

These issues are not only domestic, but global. As a result, Consumers International (CI), the membership organisation that brings together over 200 consumer organisations in more than 100 countries, has this week set out new online product safety guidelines.

Which? has worked closely with CI to develop these guidelines that recommendations for online marketplaces to be made legally responsible for the safety of all products sold on their platforms, and giving regulators the powers to enforce this, as well as publishing sellers’ business name, address and contact details on their websites to lift the cloak of mystery that so many operate under. 

Another principle is the promotion of cross-border cooperation. Given that this is a global issue, governments should pursue commitments in international agreements that promote consumer protections between countries, as well as sharing information about products that have been identified as unsafe or have been recalled, with regional or international safety databases.

International collaboration

We believe that it’s sensible to tackle this consumer harm through international collaboration. But issues must also be addressed on a country by country basis – and here the UK has an opportunity to set the global standard.

The government, which has repeatedly claimed that it wants to make the UK the safest place in the world to go online, must empower its Office for Product Safety and Standards by making necessary changes to modernise the UK’s product safety regime. It has been encouragingly committed to ensuring that only safe products are sold online, but given the scale of the issue that consumer groups are uncovering all across the world, a much more proactive approach is required.

The OPSS recently issued a product safety message to warn people of the risks of buying from online marketplaces. But responsibility cannot be left to consumers alone.

A legal duty on marketplaces

A first step is to update online marketplaces’ responsibilities, by placing a legal duty on marketplaces to ensure all products sold through their platform – either by third party sellers or by the platform itself – are safe. It also means requiring online marketplaces to remove unsafe products from their site and inform consumers within 24 hours. 

These changes would give consumers greater confidence to shop online, and reduce the possibility of ending up with an unsafe product. They’re critical to ensuring consumers are properly protected from the range of unsafe products found on these sites – something I reiterated when speaking at the CI launch event for its Guidelines on Wednesday. 

Christmas is fast approaching, when millions more consumers will enter the lottery of unsafe products sold through online marketplaces when shopping for presents. They deserve better protection, and the government and online marketplaces must move quickly to provide it.

A version of this op-ed originally appeared in The Independent.

Comments

It’s very encouraging to see Which? taking action after having reported on dangerous and counterfeit products in the past. A quotation from a report by Consumers International gives some indication of the the problem:

However, research by the Office for Product Safety and Standards (OPSS) has found that 62.5% of electrical goods advertised on online marketplaces were non-compliant, with 23% being unsafe i. Research by Electrical Safety First also found that 14 out of 15 sampled electrical goods on online marketplaces were unsafe. Consumers are increasingly being exposed to unregulated online marketplaces – and this situation needs to be addressed.

It is usually difficult or impossible to spot dangerous products just by looking at them, though there can be some clues, not least low prices, so at present the best solution is to avoid buying from online marketplaces.

This Convo seems to more or less duplicate the theme of another very recent Convo where I posted ”The vast number of products sold by respectable UK suppliers are generally safe, and always have been because regulations governing them are observed by due diligence.

Online traders currently escape this regulation and that, quite simply, needs putting right.

I have said, and clearly we agree, that the hosts of online marketplaces are made legally responsible. Let us hope progress is made to achieve that.

That Convo, introduced by Consumers International on 1st Dec is here https://conversation.which.co.uk/shopping/product-safety-marketplaces-consumers-international/

Should we not keep such closely-related topics under one Convo roof, otherwise relevant contributions will be split.

The protection of consumers against unsafe products from any source requires new, or updated, legislation. Legislation needs to be policed. Therefore we need bodies with the means to monitor the market, proactively check, follow up complaints, bring about the removal of non-compliant and dangerous products and support the prosecution of the UK businesses involved in marketing these products. The Convo referred to had an exchange of views on the proper resourcing of Trading Standards to enable them to carry out this job, one that is part of their remit.

Will Which? join with others to demand appropriate legislation and to ensure Trading Standards are equipped to help enforce it?

One problem with enforcement is that dangerous goods are often warehoused and shipped in from abroad direct to the consumer. If the goods are stored in the UK, then they can be identified, seized and destroyed by Trading Standards. But what if the goods, often electrical, are only considered dangerous here, because they do not comply with the more stringent UK standards?

There are many examples of socket outlets that do not have shutters that are legal in their home countries, for instance the standard American spade socket or the Indian multi-plug design that accepts almost every form of plug known to man. I’m sure I am not the only person who has been forced to listen to a mind-numbing PowerPoint presentation on the importance of local office health and safety rules, whilst toying with the urge to insert a paperclip into the offending orifice!

International co-operation is all fine and good, but how could we stop the export/import of these items to the UK, when no one can legally stop their manufacture and sale at source for home consumption?

It is illegal for UK distributors to put products on the market that do not comply with UK regulations, irrespective of where they are manufactured or sourced. The standards we use on which our regulations are based are generally those used in the EU – EuroNorms – and frequently based on international standards. I would say our regulations are not more stringent but cover essential safety matters.

David Pilgrim says:
4 December 2021

‘Which’ is so hypocritical. The one marketplace that has the worst record for retailing below standard goods is ‘Amazon’, yet time after time Amazon is the first named retailer on the recommended retailers for ‘Which’ best buys. There is only one reason, the fact that Amazon pay the Consumers Association for the link. No wonder senior executives can take home hundred of thousands. Some Charity!

I started reading ‘Which’ in the 1960’s and was pleased with the concept. It was never intended to be an open till for staff.

I have to say that I have never seen any article or survey anywhere supporting the assertion that Amazon has the “worst record for retailing below standard goods”. My own personal experience of shopping online extensively is that using Ebay is a far more risky proposition, with far greater likelihood of receiving counterfeit or non-compliant goods.
I have received items from Amazon over the years and they were unhesitating in refunding or replacing, and removing offending items and marketplace sellers.

Amazon will supply what the customer selects including a wide range of superior, standard and inferior products. Some of the information it gives [provided by the seller] is not as honest or helpful as we would like but it is a starting point as in any high street, shopping mall or market, and the whole review process needs to be approached with caution. My concern is that it is far too open to traders who are seeking to rip consumers off with unsafe or downright dangerous products, but in my experience the signs are always there and bad goods can be avoided with a bit of critical intuition.

The difference is between supplied by Amazon – no problems with that – and “fulfilled” by Amazon, where there marketplace allow dangerous products onto the market. You need to check where it is coming from and, if not sure of the source, do some research.

As Xmas nears and nights draw in, the pickings are quite rich.
And Amazon will try its best to make sure there’s no hitch.
But waters oft are muddied by a subtle change of name,
“Sold by” and “Fulfilled by” are not by any means the same.

So best to make sure what you buy is not from Marketplace;
Unless you’re really happy just to buy from anyplace.
It’s true that Amazon indeed has angels in its team,
But when you buy from marketplace you might just want to scream.

Malcolm — I appreciate the distinction and should have written “Amazon will sell whatever the customer selects . . . “.

While not necessarily dangerous if dealt with safely, Amazon has been known to have stocked and sold into the UK market electrical products with two-pin plugs. As you know, such fittings do not conform with UK legal requirements but many customers might not realise that.

Amazon seem to use the term “Sold and dispatched by Amazon” for retail sales for which they can be held liable, and either “Sold and dispatched by XYZ Trader” or “Sold by XYZ Trader and dispatches from Amazon” for goods offered in their marketplace but for which they are not the retailer, so there can be an element of stocking the product in either arrangement. Although purporting to clarify the situation, the confusion inherent in such descriptions is a consumer detriment in my opinion.

Today Which? issued this press release
https://press.which.co.uk/whichstatements/which-response-to-government-efforts-to-tackle-unsafe-products-sold-online-ahead-of-christmas/
but, having no idea what it referred to, dug out this government statement issued as a press release:
https://www.gov.uk/government/news/government-targets-unsafe-products-online-in-run-up-to-christmas
”Government targets unsafe products online in run-up to Christmas
More than 1,000 products being tested from major online marketplaces to ensure Christmas gifts are safe……….
……
The products, including toys, are from third-party sellers on online marketplaces and the Office for Product Safety and Standards (OPSS) is ensuring they meet the UK’s high standards for product safety, or else ensuring that they are removed from sale. If any dangerous or faulty products are identified, OPSS will contact the online marketplace to have them taken down so that Christmas gifts are safe. Consumers will be able to return products and receive a refund.

OPSS has identified goods such as toys, cosmetics and electricals that can pose particular risks. The products are checked for correct labelling and packaging and any which fail are sent away to a testing house for further investigation……….

It is good to see that efforts are made to police the on line market places but I assume that more will be done than just checking packaging and labelling. Dangers exists behind those.

But, this scratches the surface and does not affect, seemingly, those who enable dangerous products to be sold to UK consumers, the companies that operate and profit from these on line marketplaces.

The release does go on to say:
”Following a call for evidence earlier this year, the government has committed to consult on regulatory changes to address these issues including ensuring that the responsibilities of online marketplaces are clear and there is greater accountability for products sold in the UK.

Let’s hope that happens sooner rather than later – maybe by next Christmas?

I wonder who actually reads these press releases though, other than journalists? How many buy newspapers these days? I rarely recall seeing these messages appearing on tv.

“But, this … does not affect … the companies that operate and profit from these on line marketplaces.”

Agree it should affect them. But whether someone makes a profit (or a loss) from trading in dangerous goods makes no difference. It is quite likely that some goods are being sold at a loss, if only to liquidate otherwise unsaleable goods.

The on-line marketplace exposing unsafe goods for sale makes a profit on any sales even if the trader makes a loss. It is the marketplace which should not be able to profit from this form of selling and should be made responsible for the safety and conformity of products it exposes for sale.

Em, the point I was making was that unlike, say, newspaper ads where they only profit from the ad cost, online marketplace hosts profit from the listing (the ad) plus stocking, handling, delivering and taking payment and, financially, cannot lose. That help they give traders to get goods to customers should carry a responsibility that ensures those goods are safe and meet regulations.

Penalising them if products they help onto the market are dangerous should make them very careful about what they sell, just as other UK distributors and retailers must be.

Hi malcolm – I do think I have understood your points and it is pretty clear from the description which company you have in mind.

To me, knowingly manufacturing, distributing, selling, promoting, advertising, endorsing, giving away or otherwise facilitiating the use of any dangerous product or service should be a criminal offence, regardless of how, when or whether money changes hands, in much the same way that illegal substances are regulated.

Of course, this sanction against online marketplaces would also need to include the owners of shopping malls, internet service providers, telcos, car boot sales, pubs, clubs and even local council markets if they knowingly allow these traders to operate. The problem isn’t going to go away by shutting down Amazon Marketplace or eBay, or imposing limited fines as just another cost of doing business.

I don’t think you can compare on-line market places with shopping malls. A mall is just a collection of shops under one roof and apart from collecting the rent and service charges the mall owner is not receiving any income from sales and is not participating in any way in the fulfilment of purchases.

Regular street markets and open air markets are routinely patrolled by trading standards and environmental health officers. The traders are visible and identifiable, their goods can be inspected before purchase, and, so far as I can tell, there are few problems with dangerous or unsafe products. It is likely that a lot of imported goods are sold on street markets at knock-down prices and some of them might be unsafe but I don’t think a trader would survive long in the market if they had a reputation for selling dangerous stock. It is much easier tor the authorities to take down a physical trader and stop them reappearing than it is to control on-line market place traders who pop up and reappear in different guises.

Of all the product lines available on the major on-line market places only a tiny percentage are probably unsafe or dangerous but nevertheless they have the potential to cause harm or injury and they undermine the responsible trade of other merchants.

I feel there is a collective sense of honesty and responsibility with physical markets where they operate similarly to the ancient guild system; if a trader steps out of line, the others make life difficult for them. The other traders cannot afford to have their good name and reputation, and the general market place, sullied by a rogue trader. It might be a rough form of justice but it is effective. Such action is impossible with on-line trading.

I think it would be quite easy for legislation to distinguish between on-line and physical trading and deal with offences by making the on-line market places responsible for the safety of the goods they expose for sale.

The problem of counterfeit goods and unsafe products in the physical environment is largely associated with fly-selling and fly-pitching. Again, such activities are highly visible and not hard to enforce against.

The problem with penalising those who knowingly manufacture dangerous goods is that they are usually beyond the reach of UK legislation. But UK distributors and facilitators are not; it is their responsibility to only sell safe goods to us.

it is impossible to police the manufacture of goods overseas, particularly in China, where safety standards may not be in place or not adhered to. I have witnessed at first hand efforts being made in recent by the Chinese authorities to strengthen ties with international electrical standards groups covering high end technical products. While this does not necessarily mean that international guidance will be followed when a Chinese delegation attended our meeting in Beijing it was a start!
The current tsunami of substandard ( by European and Uk regulations) and potentially dangerous electrical products will not be easily stopped at the point of export so needs another mechanism.
I agree wholeheartedly that the seller and or importer should bear the legal responsibility for dangerous or faulty goods and that UK legislation should be enacted to provide a vehicle to enable this.
The seller should be clearly defined as the person or persons placing such articles on the UK market by enabling the subsequent purchase. I am no lawyer so there are probably a better form of words.
I am not sure how you would deal effectively with directly imported goods from Asia to your home address.

Personal imports will be the hardest to deal with but the first priority must be to introduce legislation to prevent online marketplaces hosting sellers of dangerous and counterfeit goods.

I don’t understand why these businesses do not exercise moral responsibility to deal with the problem without the need for legislation.

I doubt we can ever deal with personal imports.

I suspect that (certain) businesses do not take action to control the products sold through their online marketplaces because…..it makes them money.

Legislation is needed, as has been said so often, to make them responsible just as other UK retailers and distributors are. The regulations and standards are in place; the legislation for this particular activity is not.

“I don’t understand why these businesses do not exercise moral responsibility to deal with the problem without the need for legislation.” . . Really? Many companies will work to comply with the law – they will not incur extra cost for their “moral responsibility”, unless forced to do something by law. This is nothing new. Additionally, many consumers want the cheapest items, they are not too concerned about their own moral responsibility not to buy products that are made by abused and under-age workers, and they will happily buy a £5 electronics item that is possibly counterfeit instead of the £20 original branded product.

”Dangerously inaccurate thermometers sold on biggest online shopping sites,”Which? warns
22 December 2021
”Infrared thermometers sold on popular online marketplaces, including Amazon and eBay give dangerously inaccurate temperature readings, suggesting they have not been adequately checked or safety monitored by the online platforms, according to a Which? investigation.”

Suggesting they have not been adequately checked or safety monitored? That seems a rather naive statement given that it is what lies behind the whole problem with online market places.

Let us hope 2022 sees Amazon and the like being held legally responsible for all the products they help onto the UK market, whether “sold by” or “fulfilled by” them. Then we might see them being “adequately checked and monitored”. Until then, perhaps Which? could push for all “fulfilled by” products to be required to have a warning attached to them by the marketplace host to the effect they might be dangerous or fake.

There is a Which? article that gives more detail than the press release: https://www.which.co.uk/news/2021/12/three-cheap-infrared-thermometers-from-amazon-and-ebay-fail-accuracy-tests/

I would hope that all companies including online marketplaces have a moral responsibility to comply with safety requirements. Maybe they see making money as a higher priority. Should companies that take that approach be allowed to trade? What about their directors?

I can see that glass thermometers are risky for children and the elderly but for the time being I’m happy using one and it never needs batteries.

R”Which? tested a selection of eight infrared (non-contact) thermometers bought from online marketplaces following a warning by the MHRA (Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency) highlighting safety and performance concerns in July 2021.”.

Apart from their obvious use in Covid, reliable temperature measurements are essential in checking for fever, particularly in babies and young children. So why has it taken 5 months for these defective products to be brought to our attention?

If you click on the press release summary to get the full version it seems to cover just the same detail as the “latest news” article. The “news article” had no prominence, eclipsed by far more important articles on Currys’ (and others) best sale items – daily stories. Maybe, as has been remarked before, we are members of a Consumerism Association.

Electrical Safety First are asking those concerned about the safety of products sold by online market places to write/email in support of a private members’ bill
https://electricalsafetyfirst.cmail19.com/t/ViewEmail/y/9E17A4A58BEA522B2540EF23F30FEDED/8E4C703CEA04D6BBDBC23BD704D2542D?alternativeLink=False