The ease of shopping online means that it’s fast becoming the preferred choice for many but while buying goods is easy, returning them can be frustrating.

That was the situation for Julia Griffiths. She persuaded her parents to buy two folding beds online at £490. When the item arrived they opened just one of them, unfolded it and sat on the bed.

They soon realised the mattress was not what they were expecting at all and so decided to put it back in the box, and phoned the company to request a refund.

But that request was refused. At first the company said the standard beds had been brought in specially but when Julia disputed this, they then said the bed was unsaleable because it had been removed from its box.

“It’s made me quite angry really that this company’s taken our money, we’re left with products we don’t want and we’re left out of pocket by quite a lot of money.” Says Julia.

And Julia’s right to be disappointed because she should have got the money back. As this was an online purchase, she was protected by the Distance Selling Regulations which gives customers the right to a full refund if they cancel an order within seven working days of receiving it.

According to the guidance drawn up by the Office of Fair Trading on how to interpret those regulations – that right remains, even if they open the box and remove the packaging.

Ingrid Gubbay Consumer Lawyer says “When you are in a shop you can inspect the product. You can test the product. You know exactly what you’re looking for. But you can’t do that so much online. And so the Distance Selling Regulations allow you a bit more flexibility.”

Those regulations make other demands on online retailers. So who’s meeting them and who isn’t?

Mystery Shoppers:

Our team looked at websites of the Top twenty online retailers, first checking to see what contact details they supply.

Under the Distance Selling Regulations they should give a full geographical address. Nineteen out of the twenty companies checked provided one – but Play.Com didn’t.

It doesn’t have an address in the contact details but within its terms and conditions there’s a PO Box.

“Traders must put their contact details and that consists of the geographical address, business address, email address…So that if things go pear-shaped consumers know exactly where to complain to because there has been issues in the past and people need to be re-assured who they’re dealing with directly.” says Ingrid Gubbay.

Online retailers also operate under the E-Commerce Regulations. These insist that they must provide you with an email address by which you can contact them.

Our mystery shoppers found that on Play.com’s contacts page there isn’t actually an email address and you have to choose a certain subject area before a web-form comes up – which is another possible breach by Play.Com of the rules.

This time they weren’t the only retailers out of the twenty we surveyed potentially breaking this rule. In fact, eleven of the companies surveyed were breaking this rule.

Ingrid Gubbay explains, “…A webform address is not adequate because if people want to email or communicate with the trader it could get lost in the ether. There’s no record of them having done that and even though the trader may have received it, it obviously opens the avenue of a dispute to arise.”

Another area we wanted to test the retailers on was returning goods. The rules state that you should be able cancel an order within seven working days of receiving it and get your money back – even if there’s nothing wrong with the goods.

On Sports Directs website it said: “you may cancel your order at any time within 7 working days… We will refund the goods in full and reimburse you the delivery costs”. But went on to say that you have to return the goods “in their original packaging”. However the OFT guidance clearly states the Distance Selling Regulations allow consumers to examine the goods they have ordered as they would in a shop, which means companies can’t insist on it being returned “as new” or in the original packaging.

But despite this being set out clearly, some of the biggest online retailers prefer to view things differently.

If you want to return an item to Apple we found: the item needs to be in its “original condition” and the “security seals need to be intact”.

While Curry’s website says: as long as the goods are “in 'as new' condition and returned in the original, undamaged packaging”.

In total, six of the top twenty companies made these demands about the way you have to return a product, in order to get a refund even though the guidance and therefore the regulations say otherwise.

Ingrid Gubbay Consumer Lawyer says, “You’d think that retailers, particularly big high street retailers would have this now in place. But it seems to me there’s a lot of work still to be done. It suggests a general lack of awareness and they need to smarten up their act,. There’s absolutely no reason why they should not be compliant.”

Company Responses

 

A spokesperson for Play.Com says, 

We value all feedback relating to our website, and strive to ensure customer communications are as clear and helpful as possible. Following comments received from Watchdog, we have now added email contact details and a full address to our website. Regarding our returns policy, it is 7 days for unwanted items, and 30 days for anything faulty. Operating an online Marketplace, we recommend customers contact the seller directly in the first instance, as most issues can be very easily resolved. If customers are not satisfied in any way, they are always covered by our Fairplay Guarantee, in which we will refund the third party seller product in full. If customers have any concerns, they can speak to our customer service team at our UK Contact Centre seven days a week on 0845 800 1020, and via email, Facebook and Twitter.

 

A spokesperson for Argos says,

Argos takes very seriously our regulatory obligations and works closely with our Primary Authority Milton Keynes Trading Standards to ensure business compliance with the Consumer Protection (Distance Selling) Regulations 2000 and the Electronic Commerce (EC Directive) Regulations 2002. It appears that the email address was omitted during upgrades to our website this year. We sincerely apologise for any confusion that may have caused. We are taking steps to rectify that situation. Customers have the option to return goods directly to us, or through one of our 740 stores.

A spokesperson for Debenhams says,

Debenhams strives to provide a superior customer experience at all times. We try to make this as easy as possible, giving our customer many different contact routes, such as traditional white mail and telephone through to the increasingly more popular options of web chat, web forms and numerous social media sites including Facebook and Twitter. The majority of our customers tell us that they want to talk to somebody rather than emailing, which is why our phone number is displayed prominently on our website. However, following the comments in your letter we shall be displaying an email address clearly on our website before the end of year to ensure that we continue to be readily accessible to our customers and continue to offer the best service we possibly can”.

A spokesperson for Asda Direct says,

We have been aware of this oversight for some time and are rectifying it in our next wave of website updates. We will represent both geographical and email address details.

A spokesperson for New Look says,

Everyone at New Look is committed to achieving exceptional standards of service. We genuinely want to make it as straightforward as possible for customers to let us know when things go wrong, or if they’ve had a problem with something they’ve bought from us. And, in all aspects of complaint resolution, we strive to exceed our minimum legal and regulatory requirements. We provide our customers with the following methods for contacting us:

By telephone, by post, in store, via our website. Customers can email us, using the web-form contact. Our web-form contact gives customers a drop-down list of subject options to choose from. This directs each query to the most appropriate adviser – thus ensuring the fastest possible response.

Although we felt this facility was user-friendly, efficient, and totally in the spirit of clause 5.2 (c) of The Electronic Commerce (EC) Regulations (SI 2002/2013), we would never want to fall short of full compliance. So we will be adding a full email address to the ‘contact us’ page of our website. I can confirm that there will be an email address visible by the time your programme goes on air.

A spokesperson for Sports Direct says,

With regards to your point that the Sports Direct website did not provide an email contact on the website, we apologise as this did use to be the case, however when we transferred over to our new, faster online platform on 31 October 2012, the email address did not survive the transition. As with moving to any new platform, there are always teething problems. We have now rectified this and we thank you for bringing this to our attention.

With regards to our Terms & Conditions, these have been under review in recent weeks following customer feedback, and the relevant part of our newly published T&C’s now read: ‘To cancel an order, you must inform us in writing. You must also return the goods to us as soon as possible. The goods do not need to be in their original packaging however in a sellable condition, and at your own cost and risk.’

Customer service is very important to Sports Direct and we pride ourselves in delivering a good customer experience.

A spokesperson for River Island says,

Good Condition – The Distance Selling Regulations (“DSR”) require customers to take “reasonable care” of goods before they are returned. We believe it is reasonable to assume that goods will be returned to us in “good condition” if the customer has taken reasonable care of them. Accordingly, we do not consider this wording to be in breach of the DSR, however, to prevent any confusion we have deleted the “good condition” wording.

Original Packaging – The DSR also require consumers to “retain possession of the goods” before they are returned. Our T&C’s only request that the original packaging in relation to gifts, cosmetics and electrical goods is returned as this often forms an integral part of the product. In addition, we are aware that consumers will want to inspect goods once they are received and therefore we asked for these goods to be returned “with” their original packaging rather than “in” it. We do not consider this to be an unreasonable request; however, we appreciate that it is possible that consumers could perceive this as a barrier to returning their goods. We have therefore amended the wording of our T&C’s to make it clear that this is a request rather than a requirement and now it reads, “When returning gifts, cosmetics and electrical goods we would appreciate it if you could return all original packaging.

 

A spokesperson for John Lewis says,

In line with many other retailers, John Lewis uses web forms rather than providing a direct email address in order to help direct the customer query to the most appropriate place to get it resolved quickly. We continually review the contact options we provide to our customers and where we believe a direct email address is more beneficial we provide one (for example for our Technology after sales support team).

A spokesperson for Amazon says,

Our aim is offer the very best service to all our customers and we offer telephone, email or live chat services via ‘contact us’ in the help section of our website. Amazon complies with all applicable laws and regulations.

ASOS firmly supports the principles behind the Distance Selling Regulations. As a ‘pure play’ internet retailer, we absolutely understand the need for customers to feel reassured when purchasing anything online; we spend a lot of time and effort identifying and endeavouring to meet our online customers’ requirements, whether that is from a fashion, technological or customer service perspective. It is this commitment to constantly interacting with our customers and their needs that has led to ASOS being number one in the UK Customer Satisfaction Index in July 2012 as issued by the Institute of Customer Service, which is something we’re hugely proud of.

You raised two specific concerns regarding our current online customer proposition.

First, you have stated that ASOS does not provide an e-mail contact, but instead only provides a web content form. Our web contact form is one of our preferred methods for contact with our Customer Care operation. However, it is only one method; we should like to explain the entire framework of customer care information and contact options which ASOS offers.

The world of ecommerce has moved at quite a pace since the Distance Selling Regulations were enacted in 2000. The Regulations were made before the explosion of social media, such as Facebook and Twitter. Being in their twenties, our customers are pioneers and heavy adopters of emerging trends such as social media, and we have adapted our Customer Care information and contact options needs accordingly.

We have a “Help & Contact” section on the site, which sets out an extensive set of Questions & Answers covering most of the topics that could arise in making a purchase from ASOS. Those Questions & Answers are frequently reviewed and updated by the ASOS Customer Care and Legal teams, to take into account any new subjects about which we receive contacts from customers.

If customers do not find the information they need in the “Help & Contact” section, they can contact our Customer Care team, who are available twenty-four hours a day and all of whom are properly trained to meet ASOS’ customer care priorities. The “Contact ASOS” tab in the “Help & Contact” section of our website explains the number of ways people can contact ASOS directly.

How customers contact ASOS is based on customer preferences. We tailor our response times to suit the preferences customers choose, and aim to be at or above industry best practise in terms of our response time. These are summarised below:

• If customers choose to use the online ‘contact us’ form, part of published customer promise is to respond within 4hrs to all contacts from www.asos.com and within 6hrs for contact from our international ASOS sites – and we’re constantly monitoring our performance against these commitments to see if they can be reduced. The online contact form is available as an easy way for customers to ping their query to us. A web contact form was not a realistic option when the Distance Selling Regulations were enacted, but is now a very effective and efficient tool to ensure our customers get prompt responses. The use of the form, and its drop down menu options, routes a customer’s enquiry to the relevant team in Customer Care and makes it easier for that team to determine what the particular contact relates to. All contact form queries receive a personalised response from one of our Customer Care Advisors which provides the customer with the Customer Care email address if any further contact is required on a matter. At exceptionally busy times, we may also send an initial automated acknowledgement email.

• Customers can and do use social media to contact ASOS through Facebook and a dedicated ASOS Customer Care twitter account - @asos_heretohelp. This may not be a legal requirement but it is extremely popular with our predominantly twenty-something customers. Our response time for social media is within 1hr.

• Email is another option, although we do prefer our customers to use the online contact us option. Contrary to your statement, our site does actually set out a number of email addresses in the various sub-sections of the “Contact ASOS” tab, albeit for press, media, marketing, investor relations, suppliers and CSR. Whilst there is a specific Customer Care email address as mentioned above, we do not state it up front on the website, as we suggest people use the Contact Form for the routing benefits set out above. Our email response times are the same as our web form targets (i.e. four hours for asos.com and six hours for our international sites).

• Our customers are often the first to adopt emerging technology, so we’re constantly looking for ways to innovate how we communicate with them e.g. we’re currently trialling the use of ‘live chat’ or ‘web chat’ to find out what our customers think about this as a better way to contact ASOS.

All contacts are logged in our Customer Care contact management systems so we have as complete a picture as possible of all interactions between our Customer Care team and any customer.

Your second point related to a requirement for items to be returned in their original condition. We agree that it is not good business sense for an online retailer to place unreasonable conditions on their customers returning products to us. For that reason, as part of our commitment to great customer service, we have always been happy to accept returns which were not in their original packaging. Towards the end of October, ASOS actually reviewed the wording on its website relating to this point and changed it to read as follows in order to make this clear:

We try hard to accept all returns, and returns to us don’t need to be in the original packaging. In the unlikely event that an item is returned to us in an unsuitable condition, we may have to send it back to you.

This change was made to the ‘What is your returns policy?’ sub-section of the Returns tab on our site on 22nd October, 2012, it has since been amended in the ‘How do I cancel my order under the Distance Selling Regulations?’ sub-section. That sub-section has now also been changed to reflect that new wording.

Whilst ASOS prides itself on its Customer Care proposition, we are not complacent in this area and we are constantly reviewing how customers wish to make contact with ASOS and the ways in which we give customers access to the help/support they need. The contents of your letter will be considered as part of that process.

A spokesperson for TopShop says,

We strongly support the requirement for online retailers to provide clear company and contact information on their websites — customers need to know who they are buying from and how to make contact or to return an item should that be necessary. Topshop.com?customers can contact us in a number of ways. We encourage contact by telephone or in writing via an online form. However, we also provide an email address for our customer services team on our returns page and details of our registered office address in our terms and conditions.

Returns are free, and orders include returns address labels for added customer convenience. In addition, online returns are accepted in our 300 stores across the UK. We are confident that our website complies with and indeed goes well beyond the minimum requirements of the Distance Selling Regulations and the E-commerce Regulations.

The intent of the email address requirement in the regulations is to ensure online retailers can be contacted in writing, at no cost to the customer, with confidence that the message will quickly reach staff who are able to assist. Our contact form does exactly that. Crucially, it also encourages customers to supply key information such as the nature of their enquiry, an order number if relevant, and whether they would prefer a response by email or by phone; in doing so, we are able to answer queries much more fully and rapidly than if sent via email.

We are also looking at how we can improve the form further so that customers can more easily retain a copy of any query they submit to us.

A spokesperson for Sainsburys says,

It’s important to us that we communicate well with our customers and deal with their queries quickly and efficiently. The Contact Us page on our website gives customers a variety of options to contact us including a postal address and a number of free telephone numbers. For email communication we ask customers to complete a web form that ensures we have the information we need to deal with customer queries as quickly as possible. Once the web form has been submitted, the customer receives an acknowledgment that comes directly from the team responsible for the topic queried (e.g. customer services, the online team etc.). This email can be responded to if the customer wants to do so, and can be kept as a record of their communication with us. We will, of course, also give customers our email addresses if they prefer not to use the web form.

A spokesperson for Tesco says,

We are committed to providing customers with outstanding service. (An example of this) is the range of ways we provide for customers to contact us, including webform, email, phone and in our stores

A spokesperson for Apple says,

In an effort to protect against software piracy, Apple does not accept returns of software where the software was supplied sealed and unused and the customer breaks the seal. This policy prevents a purchaser breaking the security seal, copying the software and then seeking to return the original copy to Apple. The OFT confirmed in 2009 that Apple's policy in relation to software returns was acceptable. The Sale and Refund Policy of the Apple Store specifically refers to customers returning products in the product packaging which has been opened "Unless damaged while being opened, the original Product packaging is most suitable for use for Product returns, and unless damaged while the Product was opened, this packaging should be used."  (http://store.apple.com/uk/open/salespolicies#topic-7) The old section 7.3 of the Sale and Refund Policy of the Apple Store has been deleted as it was largely repetitive of sections 7.2 and 7.4.

 

A spokesperson for M&S says,

We believe in offering high levels of customer service that go well beyond minimum required standards under the consumer protection laws. For example, our returns policy is one of the best in the industry and is much more generous than those offered under basic statutory rights.

That principle applies equally to items bought online. So for instance:

• We offer a facility for customers to return online purchases by taking them to a UK store, as an alternative to posting them back. We’re not legally obliged to offer this, but many customers find this flexibility useful.

• We also offer significantly extended return periods – within 35 days of purchase. In addition to this, under our current Christmas returns policy for instance, a large range of products bought from 21 September onwards can be returned or exchanged for a full refund up to 15 January, whether bought in-store or online.

Contact details: On the M&S website, we provide multiple ways for customers to contact us, including full postal address, phone numbers, fax numbers, email addresses, Facebook, Twitter and a web contact submission form. You claim that we don’t provide an email contact, but that’s not correct. In fact we make several available on the site, including retailcustomer.services@marksandspencer.com. These are highly visible within our site terms and conditions and privacy policy, with other specific email addresses also available elsewhere on the site. In practice, experience has taught us that web submission forms help us ensure that communications are quickly routed to the most appropriate team internally. But if customers prefer to email us, then of course they can use the email addresses we readily provide.

Return of goods ordered remotely online: Our returns policy in fact goes significantly beyond the basic legal minimum. However, we are also careful to ensure that we meet all of our essential compliance obligations. As required under the Distance Selling Regulations, we give details of the statutory right to cancel in a clear and comprehensible form within our website terms and conditions. This is then confirmed in a durable form by email once a purchase is made. You are correct that we require customers to take reasonable care of products that they wish to cancel – which complies with Regulation 17 of the Distance Selling Regulations. Further, the OFT’s own guidance advises that online retailers “may ask consumers to return goods with the original packaging”, reflecting the fact that the packaging is part of what the customer has purchased. Again, for a customer who has changed their mind in good faith about an online purchase, we think it is reasonable – in the context of the products we offer, e.g. lingerie and bedding – to require the item to be returned placed back in its original packaging.

Lastly, at M&S we are very proud of our strong track record in training our employees to give a consistently high level of customer service, and we work hard to address any issues that may arise from time to time.

 

A spokesperson for Currys says,

Our Returns and Collections policy applies common sense and is clearly laid out. We tell customers on our website that following Distance Selling regulations they may open their goods to inspect them. We do not feel it is unreasonable to then ask that if they are still undecided about keeping those goods they are sensible in handling them - returning them in a good condition and with the relevant manuals, packaging and accessories. This is consistent with our in-store processes. Of course, we understand that each customer purchase is unique and our store and customer service teams are happy to help advise customers before buying if they remain unsure about anything.