/ Shopping, Technology

Online shops still break the T&Cs rules

Keyboard with shopping trolley key

Why is it so hard for online shops to understand the simple rules there to protect consumers? Online T&Cs to catch up with the times and play by the rules.

We’ve checked 83 sets of online terms and conditions (T&Cs) this month, not a painless process, believe me. BHS, Cargo, Habitat and Peacocks were among the quarter with online T&Cs that broke the rules!

The good news is that, after contacting them, many of those we caught breaking key consumer protection rules have now pledged to change their terms. But really, we shouldn’t have to be the ones policing this – it’s hardly difficult for them to follow.

The Distance Selling Regulations: a shopper’s friend

When I started shopping online it was a revelation for me – but the obvious problem is that you can’t physically see what you’re ordering. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve ordered clothes that I think will make me look like a goddess, only to find that it’s a godsend no-one gets to see me in them. Cue a trip to the post office to send them back.

Lucky for me, consumers have more rights shopping online than we do on the high street. Snappily called the Distance Selling Regulations (DSRs), these rules mean you can:

  • Tell a shop you’d like to cancel your order anytime from placing it up to seven working days from the day after you receive it.
  • Expect a refund of the original postage charge if you cancel within this time.
  • Expect a free returns service unless you’re explicitly told by the shop in their terms that they expect you to pay.

But I’ve checked numerous online shops’ T&Cs over the past two years, and when pitted against the DSRs, many make for an alarmingly easy game of ‘spot the difference’.

Shops pledge to change

Since Which? has begun checking online shops back in 2008, 22 have changed their terms to comply. And it looks like more are set to follow, since most shops breaking the DSRs in this latest round of checks have pledged to change their T&Cs.

It’s great that they acted quickly, but this shouldn’t have happened in the first place. These rules are there for the protection of their customers, not for being ignored or sidelined.

Even the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) has finally taken notice. It’s pledging to ensure consumers are ‘educated’ about their rights and wants to improve the regulation and enforcement of online shops. Great news – shame it’s what we’ve been calling for them to do since the beginning of the year!

We’ll be submitting all our evidence as well as continuing checks to make sure shops stop getting away with this. So, here’s a warning to all those shops still flouting the rules: we’re not letting this go.


Why are we surprised that shops are not complying, when there are apparently no sanctions for them breaking the law? Surely the principals of contract law could be applied here – if their T&C include an "illegal" clause then the contract becomes avoidable … so the consumer should be able to "avoid" paying! That would focus their minds nicely.

Also, another issue that concerns me is the length and complexity of T&Cs. Who is ever going to read pages and pages of waffle (and no, I didn’t even read your own T&Cs when I registered because they were going on and on and on … ). Whilst I appreciate the need for the full "legal blurb" – can we lobby for a legal requirement (or even just as good practice) to have a standardised summary box right at the top stating in a limited number of words in plain English just the key points that matter to users?

So far – I have never had to complain about any on-line shopping – I’ve ordered around 200 items last year alone.

Virtually everything ordered has arrived – generally very fast. Only two items didn’t – I either obtained a refund or replacement.

If I found I didn’t like an item for some reason – It has been easy to return it and my money refunded.

It must be careful choice of vendors.

Paul Thomas says:
10 August 2010

I recently purchased a Nokia USB cable from an Amazon Marketplace trader.It did not work and in the meantime I had located my own cable. It worked. I questioned if the cable was genuine as it was different in design to my cable. It really is almost impossible to tell BUT my point is that in the envelope were the terms and conditions regarding faulty products. The company state they would replace products within 30 days of sale but outside this period it is the purchasers responsibility to contact the manufacturer. I have reported this unacceptable practice to Amazon and of course the company responsible.

Paul Thomas says:
10 August 2010

I recently took out a contract with 3 mobile for an iphone. This was delivered very quickly accompanied with what I consider to be “War and Peace” booklet on Terms and Conditions. Yes we should know what we have agreed but who on earth is going to read this ?

Leen Petre says:
20 September 2010

Is there a way to get redress when price indications on a website are vague or misleading? For example, on the website http://www.aquaticstoyourdoor.co.uk led me to think (and I assume I have at least an average intelligence level) that I was going to get 6 items of a “small neon tetra” for £ 0.85 – have a look and see if you would get misled as well… However what I really want to know is whether this website complies with rules and regulations on price indication, can anyone advise?

Diane Mansfield says:
13 December 2010

On 27 November I made what I thought was a purchase of a new television from Play.com which at the time of ordering indicated on their website that the item would be dispatched within 4-5 days. What Play.com did not indicate was that it would only dispatch 4-5 days after they had received stock. Had I read their terms and conditions, maybe I would have realised that an acknowledgement of an order was not actually a guarantee of a sale. Three weeks later and having sent 3 emails with a standard response stating stock being expected within 28 days, plus a long conversation with customer services I now realise that I haven’t actually entered into a legally binding contract and I am unlikely to receive the tv in time for christmas. I find it incredulous that online shopping companies can offer products for sale which they have no guarantee of ever being able to supply. If this is not misleading the consumer, I don’t know what is. Maybe I should have read the terms and conditions, but one thing is for sure I certainly will not be shopping with this company again.

Sharon says:
27 December 2010

Hello, this is my first time posting, came onto the website looking for a post like this! I placed an order with Boots late on Christmas Eve (sad I know but my kiddies are away to Spain for Christmas with their Dad so didn’t have to be Santa!). I didn’t notice the delivery date on the order processing page, but got an order confirmation email saying delivery would be available for pick up from store from 10th January and that I can’t cancel or amend the order. The first shock was the pick up date, 16 days to get the order to my local store, even with the holidays and bad weather just seems extreme. But that I can’t cancel the order has me even more perplexed. I know about the DSR and have never had a problem before. They say on the website its because the order is already on its way to me, but at midnight on Christmas Eve I doubt that’s true! Besides, if that was the case it wouldn’t take 16 days. So where do I stand? If I phone the customer services should they cancel the order?
Thanks for any advice

Thanks for making your first comment Sharon! You should be able to cancel it from the day you placed it up until 7 days after you’ve received it – you’re entitled to a full refund. It may be that they’re all on holiday and won’t allow you to cancel it, so they may ‘say’ that they’re sending it to you. If they have actually done so, you can still send it back, but depending on their online T&Cs you may have to pay for that return postage.

I presume you know all of this from the DSR’s, but those are indeed your rights. I’d give them a ring if you can get through tomorrow, or try on Wednesday (first working day after Christmas).