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4. Information prior to purchase

4.1. General information

4.1.1. Information about the trader

Before entering into any contract, you need to know who you are entering into a contract with. Consumers need to know which trader sells the goods they are looking for. This is information that has to be provided to the consumer before the purchase is executed. With information on who the trader is, the consumer can conduct the necessary investigations in order to determine if the trader is suitable for the purpose of the purchase.

Today almost all European countries offer online access to their official business register[24], which makes it easier for consumers to conduct at least some research on the trader[25]. The registration number can, for example, help the consumer find information on the trader’s financial situation. However, one should not take the sole fact that a trader is in the business register as a sign that the trader is suitable for the purchase in question. More research may be needed. One example is to use online consumer forums where other consumers share their experiences with certain traders or industries. Another example could be to use the Shopping Assistant, Howard, provided by the ECC-Net.

The requirements for traders to supply information on who they are can be found in both the E-commerce Directive[26] and the Distance Selling Directive[27]. While article 4(1) (a) of the Distance Selling Directive requires the trader to provide information on its identity (and address if the contract requires payment in advance), the E-commerce Directive has more comprehensive requirements. According to article 5 the trader must, among other things, make the following information easily, directly and permanently accessible: name, geographic address, email address, registration number if registered in trade or similar public register.

It is vital that web traders reveal as much information as possible about themselves when acting in a digital environment. One problem we noticed is that it is sometimes difficult for a consumer to be sure from which country the web trader operates. This can have a major impact on the purchase if a consumer wants to utilise their right to withdraw from the contract or submit a complaint, because the time limit differs between the countries. The cooling-off period can vary from 7 to 15 working days and the trader is responsible for non-conformity for at least 2 years (several Member States have chosen a longer period).[28]

In 90% of the purchases, the trader’s name was available and easy to find; in 8%, the Mystery Shopper had to search for the information. In 2% of the purchases, the name of the trader was not available at all. In 88% of the purchases, the country (domicile) of the trader was easy to find and in 9% it had to be searched for. In 3% the information was not available at all at this stage of the process. If the consumer does not know which country the product was bought from he or she may not know the full extent of his or her rights. In cases where purchases are made outside the internal market, the consumer must check the legislation with extra care. Furthermore, taxes and other charges that may also apply.

In 86% of the purchases, the trader’s physical address was easy to find, while in 11% the Mystery Shopper had to search for it. In 3% of the purchases, the physical address was not available at all. In 49% of the purchases, the trader’s company registration number was easy to find and in 8% the Mystery Shopper had to search for it. However, in 43% of the purchases, the registration number was not available.

With regard to the means of communicating with the trader (except via standard post), the Mystery Shoppers looked for both the phone number and email address of the trader. In 92% of the purchases, the trader provided a phone number. In 8% no phone number was available. In 80% of the purchases, the email address of the trader was easy to find, while in 8% it had to be searched for in order to be found. In 12% of the purchases, the Mystery Shopper could not find the trader’s email address at all. Since the consumer and trader enter into a contract using electronic communication, it is very important that the consumer also has the possibility to contact the trader via electronic means, for example via email.

Fig. 1 Accessibility of information about the trader
Fig. 1 Accessibility of information about the trader

4.1.2. Contact forms

The Mystery Shoppers also looked for so-called contact forms. This is a form on the trader’s website which the consumer can use to write his or her message to the trader, and it is then sent to the trader via the website. The consumer does not need to use an email client or log on to an email account. As shown in Fig. 2, in 52% of the purchases, the trader offered communication via a contact form.

Fig. 2 Communication via contact form offered
Fig. 2 Communication via contact form offered


This could be viewed as a service to the consumer, but it could also pose a problem. When contacting the trader, for whatever reason, it is always wise to have proof of that communication. If, for example, the contact form does not send the consumer an email with a copy of what he or she has submitted to the trader, the consumer cannot prove that he or she has tried to contact the trader and what the content of the message was.

Therefore, it is important to remember that unless the consumer is certain he or she will receive some kind of confirmation and a copy of the information sent via a contact form, the consumer should probably consider sending an email instead. If that is not possible, a print screen should be made of the content in the contact form and of the confirmation when it is sent.

4.1.3. Language

One of the things confirmed in this project is the fact that language is still a problem. Only 61% of the traders offered information in more than one language. While this figure is still relatively low, it is a big improvement on the results from the 2003 report[29]where the figure was only 24%.

If more traders offered more languages, one of the barriers to cross-border trade within the internal market could be improved. It is not likely that a majority of the consumers would make a purchase in a language they do not understand, but it does happen.

Fig. 3 Different languages offered
Fig. 3 Different languages offered

4.2. Information on price and payment

4.2.1. Price

When entering into a contract to purchase products, the price is part of the agreement. Before a consumer decides to purchase a certain product, the price of that product must be clear. Without knowing the price, the consumer will lack vital information, obstructing the ability to make an informed and well-based decision. According to article 4(1)(c) of the Distance Selling Directive[30], the price of the goods must be provided in good time prior to the conclusion of the contract. According to 4(1)(d) delivery cost should also be included. However, in this part of the shopping exercise the Mystery Shoppers were instructed to look at the price at such an early stage of the process, that delivery cost was excluded. As illustrated in Fig. 4 below, our findings show that a vast majority of traders fulfilled this obligation. In 91% of the purchases, the first price presented to the shopper included all charges except delivery costs. This is an improvement on the result in the 2009 report[31], where the above-mentioned obligation was fulfilled in 86% of the purchases[32].

Fig. 4 Price presented
Fig. 4 Price presented


It is not surprising that the price presented in the vast majority of purchases did not include delivery costs (those costs were added later in the purchase process), as delivery costs can naturally vary depending on the delivery method and where in Europe the product is to be shipped.

4.2.2. VAT and customs

In 34% of the purchases, the Mystery Shopper reported that it was not clear whether VAT was included in the presented price. In cases where it is not clear if the VAT is included, it can be considered misleading if the purchase is made within the European Union and could be seen as advertising that favours those traders. At first glance, the prices seem to be lower, but in the end the price turns out to be higher. However, if the purchase is made from Norway or Iceland, the VAT should not be included. Without the correct facts, it can be difficult to use price comparison sites. If it is not clear whether VAT is included in the price, consumers can be “tricked” into a deal they never would have agreed to if they had possessed all the information from the beginning.

Fig. 5 Clear whether VAT was included
Fig. 5 Clear whether VAT was included


Goods purchased from a trader located in a Member State and sent to a consumer located in another Member State will usually be charged with VAT from the trader’s Member State. Norway and Iceland are, however, not part of the European Union, but rather part of the European Economic Area. This means that European Consumer Law applies in Norway and Iceland, but not the VAT directive. It is clearly stated in article 146 of Directive 2006/112/EC[33] that Member States must exempt “the supply of goods dispatched or transported to a destination outside the Community by or on behalf of the vendor” as well as “by or on behalf of a customer not established within their respective territory with the exception of goods transported by the customer himself for the equipping, fuelling and provisioning of pleasure boats and private aircraft or any other means of transport for private use”.

This means that goods purchased from a European trader by Norwegian or Icelandic consumers will be charged Norwegian or Icelandic VAT when entering these countries. Therefore they need to be cleared by either the Norwegian or Icelandic Customs Authorities, which might lead to extra costs for consumers, as described in section 5.3.3 “Unexpected costs”.

4.2.3. Payment

The ECC-Net is regularly contacted by consumers who express concern over making payments in connection to e-commerce. These concerns generally have to do with technical safety but also if the consumer should supply the trader with the information requested, such as credit card details. Generally, the ECC-Net advises consumers to pay with a credit card when shopping online. This is also the reason for the recommendation to mainly use this means of payment in this project. Using a credit card can increase the consumer’s protection from fraud, non-delivery etc. It may be possible for the consumer to claim the lost money from the credit card issuer. The consumer should check the protection offered by his or her credit card before executing the online purchase. In 95% of the purchases, it was reported that the trader accepted credit cards as a payment method.[34]

In 65% of the purchases, debit or bank cards were accepted as payment methods. In some Member States, debit or bank cards offer the same protection as credit cards. In 43% payment through bank transfer was possible. Payments made using bank transfer generally lack the protection that comes with credit card payments. In 51% of the purchases, payment through various online payment methods was offered. Before using these methods and services, the consumer should make sure he or she fully understands how the process works if there is any kind of payment protection, and how that protection works.

In only 6% of the purchases was it possible to pay via invoice. This would probably be the payment method that offers the consumer most protection, since he or she can withhold the money if the item is not delivered. The money can sometimes also be withheld by the consumer if there is a dispute with the trader. In 20% of the purchases, payment by cash on delivery was possible, which means that the consumer does not have to pay until the item is delivered. However, this payment method generally does not offer any protection against non-conformity of the order.

Fig. 6 Payment methods offered
Fig. 6 Payment methods offered

4.3. Information on delivery

4.3.1. Information on delivery time and costs

According to the Distance Selling Directive[35] the contracting parties have the possibility to agree on a delivery time. In practice this means that the trader provides information on the website about how long delivery will take. If the consumer enters into contract with the trader, the delivery time is part of the contract. If the product is not delivered in time, there is a breach of contract. The Directive also stipulates what constitutes breach of contract when the parties have not agreed on a specific delivery time. According to article 7(2) of the Directive, the consumer may cancel the contract if the products are not delivered within 30 days, if the parties have not agreed on a delivery time. Under these circumstances, the consumer may cancel the contract and receive a full refund.

Fig. 7 Information on delivery time
Fig. 7 Information on delivery time

Fig. 8 Information about delivery costs
Fig. 8 Information about delivery costs


If there is no information about delivery time, then no delivery time has been stipulated in the contract, which would mean the 30 days mentioned above would apply. In 74% of the purchases, there was information about delivery time, meaning that in 26% delivery was supposed to take place within 30 days, at the latest[36]. The Mystery Shoppers reported that in 93% of the purchases, there was information about delivery costs. Not offering information about delivery costs is of great concern, since delivery costs can vary depending on where in Europe the order is being shipped to or from. The importance of this information is further underlined by the finding that many traders do not reimburse this cost to the consumer[37]. Ideally, it should be possible to obtain the information regarding delivery costs before the purchase process is initiated. This is because the consumer has to add the cost of shipping to the purchase price.

4.3.2. Information on free delivery

Some traders offer free delivery, meaning that the consumer does not have to add any extra costs to the price of the item. In 34% of the purchases, free delivery of some kind was offered by the trader. However, the Mystery Shoppers reported that the free delivery was usually connected to some kind of restriction.

Fig. 9 Free delivery offered
Fig. 9 Free delivery offered


The reported restrictions can be grouped into the following categories:

The majority of restrictions were geographical or economical: free delivery was not offered to the Mystery Shopper’s country or he or she did not place an order for a high enough sum. Free delivery without any restriction was applied in only 5% of the purchases made.

4.4. Security, privacy and Trustmarks

4.4.1. Security

Consumers must feel safe when shopping online across borders and one of the most important things in this respect is knowing whether they are shopping on a secure website. Here we found an area that needs improvement. A consumer must be able to easily find out if the site is secure and it is important that the consumer knows what to look for. One of the concerns expressed by consumers to the ECC-Net in connection to e-commerce is security. In 84% of the purchases, the Mystery Shopper reported that it was clear whether the site was secure or not. In 16% this was not clear. Since safety is a concern, there is room for improvement.

Fig. 10 Clear whether shopping at a secure site
Fig. 10 Clear whether shopping at a secure site

4.4.2. Privacy

Privacy and data protection are also of great importance in e-commerce. Concerns regarding the consumer’s personal data are regarded as one of the reasons why consumers refrain from e-commerce. This issue is general to the online environment and is not seen as creating specific barriers for consumers or traders to engage in cross-border trade.[38]

In 20% of the purchases, there was no privacy policy available at all. This means the consumer gets no information on what is done with his or her personal details. In 80% of the purchases, there was a privacy policy available, but in connection with some purchases the Mystery Shopper reported it was hard to find the information. This is, however, an improvement on the 2003 report[39], where “additional information on privacy” was available in only 54% of the purchases. In only 57% of the purchases, the trader offered information on passing the information on to third parties.

Fig. 11 Privacy policy available
Fig. 11 Privacy policy available

Fig. 12 Information on passing on personal information to third party
Fig. 12 Information on passing on personal information to third party

4.4.3. Trustmarks

A Trustmark, for the purposes of this report, is defined as an electronic label displayed on the trader’s website that is in some way connected to consumer rights and confidence. This means that we have not regarded labels that only refer to website safety as Trust-marks. In connection with Trustmarks, the following has been stated: “Usually, the purpose is to signal adherence to a set of rules (a code of conduct) in order to inspire confidence to the user of the website[40]. It is important that Trustmarks are designed and formulated in a way that is understandable for all consumers shopping in the internal market and not only for the people living in the same country as the trader.

We found that surprisingly few traders use Trustmarks. Using these labels could be a way to improve consumer confidence in e-commerce, for example, knowing that the trader has an ethical code of conduct and respects ADR scheme recommendations. Mystery Shoppers reported that 52 websites displayed a Trustmark. This means that a Trustmark was displayed on the website in only 17% of the purchases.

Out of the 52 websites that displayed a Trustmark, 46 informed about the cooling-off period, while six did not. Out of the 52 websites, 44[41] traders gave the consumer a refund, while eight did not. However, out of the 44 refunds, only 21 refunded the delivery costs (i.e. the delivery cost for shipping from the trader to the consumer). This means that 23 out of 44 traders that displayed a Trustmark did not provide a refund in accordance with the Distance Selling Directive[42]. This is a figure that must be improved if Trustmark schemes are, to continue, to be considered a seal of confidence, indicating that consumers can feel more confident when shopping on a website displaying the Trustmark.

Fig. 13 Performance of traders with Trustmarks
Fig. 13 Performance of traders with Trustmarks

4.5. Terms and conditions

4.5.1. Accessibility of terms and conditions

Since the terms and conditions govern the contract, the consumer must be able to access them before a purchase is made. In 95% of the purchases, the terms and conditions were available to the Mystery Shopper (although sometimes they had to be searched for) before the purchase process began, and in 5% they were not available. In order for the consumer to be able to make a well-informed decision about the purchase (before the process has begun), he or she must be given the chance to carefully study the terms and conditions.

Fig. 14 Terms and conditions available when not in connection to purchase
Fig. 14 Terms and conditions available when not in connection to purchase

4.5.2. Right of withdrawal

A fundamental part of distance selling is the right for the consumer to withdraw from the contract during the so-called cooling-off period. The consumer can choose whether he or she wants to keep the ordered and received product. One of the rationales for the cooling-off period is that the consumer should have the possibility to examine and see the product in the same way as if the product had not been bought through distance selling vendor (i.e. in a physical store). According to article 6 of the Distance Selling Directive[43], when the consumer has received the product, he or she has at least seven working days to withdraw from the contract. Several Member States, Norway and Iceland have chosen to stipulate longer cooling-off periods. The cooling-off period can range from seven working days to 15 working days as illustrated in the table below[44]:

Cooling-off period Country
   
7 working days Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, France, Ireland, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Slovakia, Spain, United Kingdom
8 working days Hungary
10 working days Greece, Italy, Poland, Romania
14 days Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Iceland, Latvia, Norway, Portugal, Slovenia, Sweden
15 working days Malta
   

When exercising the right to withdraw from the contract during the cooling-off period, the consumer should send the product back to the trader. According to article 6 of the Directive, the trader must reimburse the consumer the full amount that has been paid. This includes the cost of shipping from the trader to the consumer. In most Member States the consumer must, however, bear the cost for returning the product to the trader.

According to article 4(1)(f) of the Distance Selling Directive, the trader must inform the consumer about the existence of the right of withdrawal during the cooling-off period. This information must be given in good time prior to the conclusion of the contract. The information must, of course, be correct. In 82% of the purchases, the cooling-off period was mentioned in the trader’s terms and conditions. In 18% it was not. Since the cooling-off period is an important right in connection to distance selling, it is alarming that this vital information was missing in 18% of the purchases.

Fig. 15 Terms and conditions mention cooling-off period
Fig. 15 Terms and conditions mention cooling-off period


It is also alarming that in 20% of the purchases the information on the cooling-off period provided in the terms and conditions was not correct. Examples of terms not being in accordance with the law include some traders wanting the consumer to state the reason for returning the product and withdrawing from the contract, while in other cases the trader did not refund the delivery costs (shipping from the trader to the consumer). In a few cases the Mystery Shopper even reported that the trader completely rejected the right of withdrawal.

One Mystery Shopper reported that a Portuguese trader rejected the right of withdrawal (under the term “devolution”) in the terms and conditions. When the Mystery Shopper informed the trader of the wish to withdraw, the trader referred to the terms and conditions and elaborated further on the reasons for the rejection: “We are a [...] reseller and we have already paid the [product]” and “We have spent transport costs just for you to see the [product]”.

In another case, the Mystery Shopper purchased a bottle of liquor from an Austrian trader. The trader rejected the right of withdrawal as the product was perishable. According to article 6(3) of the Distance Selling Directive[45] the right of withdrawal does not apply to goods that “are liable to deteriorate or expire rapidly”, unless the parties have agreed otherwise. However, is liquor liable to deteriorate or expire rapidly?

Fig. 16 Information on cooling-off period in accordance with the law
Fig. 16 Information on cooling-off period in accordance with the law

4.5.3. Legal guarantee

According to article 3 of Directive 1999/44/EC[46], consumer purchases of goods are covered by a so-called legal guarantee[47]. The effect of the legal guarantee is that the trader is responsible for the product being in conformity with the contract (article 5(1)) at the time of delivery. This responsibility stretches over at least two years, according to the Directive; however several Member States have chosen a longer period. If any lack of conformity, in particular a defect, becomes apparent within six months of the delivery, the non-conformity is presumed to have existed at the time of delivery unless that presumption is incompatible with the nature of the product or the non-conformity (article 5(3)).

This is important information for the consumer, because it means that he or she should submit a complaint to the trader if the product is not in conformity with the contract. In some Member States consumers are even required to notify the seller of the problem within a certain period of time in order not to loose their rights. It is therefore vital that traders inform consumers of the legal guarantee.

However, traders do not seem keen to include this information since it was only presented to the Mystery Shopper in 37% of the purchases. Thus, in 63% of the purchases there was no information about the legal guarantee and the rights associated with it. In 80% of the purchases where the information about the legal guarantee was provided, the information was correct. Examples of incorrect information included statements that the legal warranty was valid for only 21 or 30 days from the purchase and that the consumer had to return the faulty item within 10 days. Mystery Shoppers also reported that sometimes the time limit for the legal guarantee was not clearly defined.

Fig. 17 Information on legal guarantee
Fig. 17 Information on legal guarantee

4.6. The purchase process

According to the E-commerce Directive[48], the trader must provide the consumer with information on the process of completing the purchase (article 10(1)(a)) and the chance to review the details of the order before placing it (article 10(1)(c)). The latter allows the consumer to correct any errors in order to spare both the trader and the consumer potential problems. To facilitate and clarify the purchasing process, a clear and simple explanation of the different steps is important since consumers need to see this to feel secure when making purchases.

In only 68% of the purchases, it was reported that the trader’s fulfilled the obligation to inform about the process of completing the purchase. This is an alarming figure since it means that in 32% of the purchases the requirements stipulated in the E-commerce Directive were not met. Also, this information helps the consumer to understand when the order is placed and thus when the two parties have entered into contract.

The chance to review the details of the order before placing it was offered in 89% of the purchases, meaning that in 11% the trader did not meet the requirements of the Directive. It is not impossible for errors or mistakes to be made when entering order or personal details. It is therefore important that the consumer is given the opportunity to review this information before the order is sent to the trader. Offering the consumer this possibility benefits both the trader and the consumer. In 94% of the purchases it was clear when the final stage was reached, i.e. when the order had been placed.

Fig. 18 Information on the purchase process
Fig. 18 Information on the purchase process


In less than half of the purchases (48%), the Mystery Shopper had to actively accept the terms and conditions before being able to complete the purchase. This is usually done by ticking a box confirming that the terms and conditions have been read and that the consumer accepts them. Since the consumer is bound by the terms and conditions after accepting them, it is important for both parties that the consumer is required to actively accept them.

Fig. 19 Necessary to accept terms and conditions before the purchase
Fig. 19 Necessary to accept terms and conditions before the purchase


When a purchase has been made, the consumer should receive confirmation of the order. This is to confirm to the consumer that the trader has received the order and also to confirm which items have been ordered. In 81% of the purchases, a confirmation order was received both on screen and in an email. In 10% of the purchases, a confirmation order was received only in an email and in 8% only on screen. In 1% there was no confirmation received at all.

Fig. 20 Confirmation of order
Fig. 20 Confirmation of order

[24] Usually, the registers are only in national languages and some countries charge a small fee for this service, which unfortunately entails a restriction on the possibilities of use by the consumer.

[25] The European Business Register (EBR) is a network of National Business Registers and Information Providers from, currently, 26 countries which provides easy access to European company information (www.ebr.org).

[26] Directive 2000/31/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 8 June 2000 on certain legal aspects of information society services, in particular electronic commerce, in the Internal Market.

[27] Directive 97/7/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 20 May 1997 on the protection of consumers in respect of distance contracts.

[28] Please refer to section 4.5.2. ”Right of withdrawal” and the appertaining footnotes.

[29] Cf. the 2003 report, p.23-24 (see footnote 1).

[30] Directive 97/7/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 20 May 1997 on the protection of consumers in respect of distance contracts.

[31] Cf. the 2009 report, p.6 (see footnote 1).

[32] Note: These figures could not be compared to the 2003 report because comparable questions were not asked in that report.

[33] Council Directive 2006/112/EC of 28 November 2006 on the common system of value added tax.

[34] Some purchases in the project could, however, be made using credit cards through third party intermediaries. Please also see section 5.3. “Payment”.

[35] Directive 97/7/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 20 May 1997 on the protection of consumers in respect of distance contracts.

[36] Please see section 5.1. “Delivery”.

[37] See section 6.2.2. “Reimbursement of delivery costs”.

[38] Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions on Cross-Border Business to Consumer e-Commerce in the EU, p. 2.

[39] Cf. the 2003 report, p.25 (see footnote 1).

[40] Jan Trzaskowski, “E-commerce Trustmarks in Europe”, p. 11.

[41] Including one, where no money was withdrawn at all, but delivery was made.

[42] Directive 97/7/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 20 May 1997 on the protection of consumers in respect of distance contracts.

[43] Directive 97/7/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 20 May 1997 on the protection of consumers in respect of distance contracts.

[44] If the conditions in article 6 of the Regulation (EC) No 593/2008 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 17 June 2008 on the law applicable to contractual obligations (Rome I) are fulfilled, the applicable law for the contract is the law of the consumer. In this event, the cooling-off period mentioned in the terms and conditions of the trader may no longer apply as the cooling-off period in the country of the consumer may be longer. It was the purpose of this project to test whether traders comply with EU-Directives as they are so-called minimum harmonisation directives. Bearing in mind the anticipation that if traders would not comply with the minimum provisions of the EU-Directives, it is not likely they would comply with national legislation either, as national legislation in many cases provides a longer cooling-off period.

[45] Directive 97/7/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 20 May 1997 on the protection of consumers in respect of distance contracts.

[46] Directive 1999/44/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 25 May 1999 on certain aspects of the sale of consumer goods and associated guarantees.

[47] Legal guarantees should not be confused with commercial guarantees (or warranties). While the legal guarantee is a right against the seller laid down in the legislation, a commercial guarantee (or warranty) is a voluntary commitment issued by the manufacturer or seller. The commitment and length of the commercial guarantee (or warranty) can vary a lot.

[48] Directive 2000/31/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 8 June 2000 on certain legal aspects of information society services, in particular electronic commerce, in the Internal Market.

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This page forms part of the publication "ONLINE CROSS-BORDER MYSTERY SHOPPING – STATE OF THE e-UNION" as chapter 3 of 8.
– STATE OF THE e-UNION" as the preface.
– STATE OF THE e-UNION" as appendix -5.
Version no. 1.0, 2011-08-31
© The Competition and Consumer Authority