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9. Conclusions and recommendations

9.1. Conclusions

Even though the internet is often referred to as a borderless market, there are still some barriers to overcome in order to reach the goal of the European Commission in 2015[93]. The general picture shows improvement when it comes to the delivery of the product. But if consumers decide to withdraw, they can still expect to run into some problems.

9.1.1. Barriers for online cross-border shopping

First of all, it was surprisingly difficult to find enough web traders who were willing to sell cross-border. The data show that almost 60% of the websites initially submitted for the project were not usable. Some websites did not meet the criteria established by the working group for the purposes of this project from the beginning, while others had changed conditions in the period between the time of selecting the websites and the time of distribution hereof.

Another barrier to online cross-border shopping is the language of the websites. The research results show that only 61% of the websites used in the shopping exercise provided information in more than one language. In 2003[94] the corresponding figure was only 24% so when comparing the data, the 61% still represents a huge improvement. Even if parts of the 39% of the websites that are only operated in one language are operated in English, this can still represent a barrier to cross-border trade.

9.1.2. Level of information on the websites

It is very important, and a legal requirement, that the consumer receives information about the trader the consumer is considering buying from. Without knowing where the trader is based it can be difficult to know which level of protection applies to the purchase[95]. In 3% of the cases, information about the trader could not be found. Even if this figure seems relatively low, it is still one of the most essential pieces of information the consumer needs about the trader. One perfect example of this is a purchase made by a Mystery Shopper on what turned out to be an American website[96].

Consumers should also know whether or not they are buying from a secure website and to what extent their personal data is protected. In 16% of the purchases, the Mystery Shopper reported that it was not clear whether or not the site was secure and in 20% the Mystery Shopper reported that there was no privacy policy available on the website. In order to increase consumer confidence in online shopping across borders, these figures need to improve.

In 95% of the purchases, the terms and conditions were available before entering into a purchase process, but the legal requirement to inform about the cooling-off period was only met in 82% of the purchases. This means that in 18% of the purchases, the Mystery Shopper was not informed about the legal right to withdraw from the contract. This is a rather disturbing result. However, it was worse to discover that the websites contained information about the legal warranty and the rights connected to it in only 37% of the purchases. Furthermore the information given about these rights was only correct in 80% of the cases.

In only 68% of the purchases did the trader provide information to consumers on the process of completing the purchase. The figure is higher when it comes to providing the consumers with the possibility to review the details of the order before placing it. This possibility was provided for in 89% of the purchases. The obligation to provide this information follows from the E-commerce Directive[97].

9.1.3. Not always easy to contact trader

It was troubling to find that Mystery Shoppers reported in 12% of the cases that an email address could not be found, especially when considering the medium used for communication between the trader and the potential buyers is electronic. The existence of an email address is a signal to the consumer that the trader is easy to reach if it should be necessary. It is therefore distressing to see that so many traders do not provide this possibility.

9.1.4. Trustmarks

The presence of a Trustmark on a website is supposed to indicate that consumers can feel confident when shopping there. First of all, it must be clear to the consumers that a Trust-mark is present. If this is the case, it must also be possible for the consumer to know exactly what this Trustmark represents. According to the data, only 52 traders were members of a Trustmark scheme (17% of all traders used in the shopping exercise). We found that 88% of these traders mentioned the cooling-off period in their terms and conditions, compared to 80% for the total number of traders. 84% of the traders with Trust-marks reimbursed the Mystery Shopper after the product was returned within the cooling-off period. This should be compared to 90% of the traders in total. However, 48% of the traders with Trustmarks did reimburse the Mystery Shopper the full amount (i.e. including delivery costs), compared to 43% in total. There is an indication from these figures that traders who are members of a Trustmark scheme apparently do not perform differently than other traders with no Trustmark. Therefore, there seems to be a need for improvement in this area.

9.1.5. Delivery and payment[98]

When it comes to delivery of ordered products, the delivery rate was 94% (of which 99% were in conformity with the order[99]). In comparison to the 2003 report[100] where the delivery rate was only 66%, a rate of 94% is a remarkable improvement. It is also positive to find that within seven days from the order date, almost 50% of all deliveries had taken place, and within 14 days 86% of all purchases were delivered[101]. From these figures, it is possible to conclude that cross-border traders have improved remarkably when it comes to delivery of the ordered products.

On the negative side, it should be noted that only in 5% of the purchases did the Mystery Shopper qualify for the offer for free delivery, even when it was offered on approximately 2/3 of all the websites. The main reasons for not being eligible for free delivery were geographical and economic restrictions.

Another observation was the fact that in 93% of the purchases, the web trader withdrew only the agreed amount from the credit card. The discrepancies in the remaining 7% of the purchases were mainly due to VAT, customs clearance and currency issues.

9.1.6. Withdrawals return procedure and reimbursements

Many traders did not inform about consumer rights regarding return procedures, the right of withdrawal, after sales service and legal warranty on a durable medium. This information was mainly given on the website, often in the terms and conditions or the customer service section.

Consumers do not have to give any reason when returning the products within the cooling-off period. However, one in three traders asked to be given a reason for the withdrawal, which is not in conformity with the rules laid down in the Distance Selling Directive and represents an additional difficulty for consumers to exercise their rights.

Consumers are entitled to be reimbursed of the sums paid to the trader, when exercising their right to withdraw from the contract. One example of a positive result observed with this project is given by the 90% of reimbursements received after returning the products to the traders.

However, this project also revealed significant problems when it comes to reimbursement of delivery costs. In 57% of the purchases the trader did not reimburse the delivery costs. In some cases, even after the Mystery Shopper had reminded the trader of its legal obligations to reimburse these costs, the Mystery Shopper still did not receive the money from the trader. In addition to the poor result of 57% purchases lacking full reimbursement it should also be noted that in 7% of all the purchases made, the trader did not inform about the price of the delivery costs. In 2003 the corresponding percentage of purchases where the Mystery Shopper did not receive reimbursement of delivery costs was 53%. The result from this project could therefore indicate a negative development noting that the figure was lower in 2003.

9.1.7. CPC issues to inform about

The ECCs reported that in 173 cases out of 305 there was an issue[102] that could be of interest to the CPC-Net. Even if the project only tested each trader with a single purchase, it is still believed that, due to the nature of the problems, there is a non-negligible potential risk that the problems will be experienced by other consumers. The working group therefore decided to provide the relevant information about the issues in question to the CPC authorities. The nature of the main problematic issues are illegal terms and conditions (not accepting right of withdrawal), no reimbursement (partial or in full) and lack of legal information (no terms and conditions, no information about cooling-off period and/or legal warranty).

9.2. Recommendations

9.2.1. Increased cooperation with businesses (trade organisations)

Some of the findings of the report are alarming. One of the main issues is the lack of information on the cooling-off period and the legal warranty on the websites; another is the lack of reimbursement of delivery costs. The different levels of protection to take into consideration can constitute a jungle especially for companies who do not have in-house legal counsel or other easy access to legal counsel. An increased cooperation between consumer and trade organisations could be beneficial in this context.

According to the rules of the E-commerce Directive[103], a trader must inform in which languages a contract can be conducted in. As this constitutes a natural limit as to whom the trader wishes to do business with, it can also be recommended that traders inform more explicitly on their websites if there are limitations to whom they wish to sell. In many cases, the Mystery Shoppers had to spend a substantial amount of time searching for the different types of information on the websites, only to find that the trader did not sell to their countries.

9.2.2. Trustmarks

Traders with a Trustmark present on their website did not necessarily perform better than those without one. This certainly calls for improvement if Trustmarks are to (continue to) serve as a seal of confidence. Perhaps this is an area that could also benefit from an increase in cooperation between consumer and trade organisations. In addition, it was reported to the working group that it wasn’t always clear if there was a Trustmark displayed on a website, especially due to language barriers. Therefore it is possible that more than 52[104] traders were members of a Trustmark scheme but that the Trustmark had not been recognized by the Mystery Shopper. If we want Trustmarks to play a role in increasing consumer confidence in online cross-border shopping, they should be designed and formulated in a way that is understandable for all consumers shopping in the internal market.

9.2.3. Enhance the visibility of the ECC-Net

There is a definite need to keep on informing consumers about their rights and obligations in order to increase consumer confidence in online shopping across borders in the internal market. Here the ECC-Net can continue to play an important role, but in order to do so we need to actively inform consumers about our existence and what we do. The ECC-Net does not only focus on providing information on consumers rights, but also provides practical advice (e.g. tips on how to avoid fraud, general tips for shopping online, providing information on secure payment methods) and assists consumers in resolving their cross-border complaints. Increasing the visibility of the ECC-Net is a key factor if we want to reach consumers.

9.2.4. Market transparency

More transparency in the market would be preferable. In connection with the recommendation stated above in section 9.2.1. (“Increased cooperation with businesses (trade organisations)”), it may also be a good idea to exchange more information on legislation or make it more easily accessible to trade organisations. It seems that a majority of traders lack sufficient knowledge about certain provisions of the legislation. The requirement to reimburse delivery costs when the consumer uses the right of withdrawal can serve as a clear example. This requirement is applicable everywhere in the European internal market since it has been transposed in all the countries, but still denied by some traders. To raise awareness about consumer protection rules in place seems therefore a crucial point.

Furthermore, considering the problems that were encountered when trying to find a sufficient number of websites for this project, it seems that the market needs more traders who are willing to sell online across borders. It seems that both traders and consumers would benefit from more transparency in the market in the long term, as transparency would contribute to minimising the differences for a trader to sell to the domestic market only or to sell across borders. If more traders would sell online across borders, it would also provide for a wider range of products for the consumers to select from. This would further make the market more efficient and create healthy competition in the market, which would ultimately benefit the customer with lower prices.

9.3. The message to consumers

Generally, the conditions in the cross-border e-commerce market for consumers have improved since the previous projects were carried out. The main problem regarding delivery of the ordered product seems to have been reduced remarkably. This was illustrated by the very high delivery rate of the shopping exercise. In almost all cases, the delivered product was in conformity with the order and there were almost no defects. This means that, in most cases, consumers can expect to have the ordered product delivered and it will be in good shape. In the very few cases where an amount was withdrawn even though no product was delivered, the trader reimbursed the money in 50% of the cases[105]. In the remaining cases, the consumer may be able to ask the credit card issuing bank or company for a chargeback.

Taking into account the very high delivery rate experienced during the shopping exercise combined with the extra security that may be provided by using credit card as the means of payment, the conclusion for consumers is, therefore, that they can generally feel confident when shopping online across borders.

However, consumers should make sure to look closely at the website they are considering shopping from. Look for contact details. Make sure there is an email address to the trader and make sure that the trader’s company is registered in the EU, Norway or Iceland. Tips on what to look for can be found in the e-commerce checklists on the ECC websites. Our study shows that in most cases this information is there and is easy to find. If the information is missing, then this may be an indication that the consumer should choose another online store. We assume that most of the purchases made online are successful purchases of products that the consumer wants to keep. However, the consumer has a legal right to withdraw from the contract without giving a reason and should not be afraid to use this right if he or she wishes.

Our advice to consumers is “be prepared, not scared!”

[93] European Commission: “A Digital Agenda for Europe”, COM(2010) 245, p. 41.

[94] Cf. the 2003 report, p. 17 (see footnote 1).

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

[96] Please refer to section 4.1.1. (“Information about the trader”) for further details on this purchase.

[97] 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.

[98]  Note: When looking at the time of payment compared with the time of delivery, it took on average eight days (two days longer than in 2003, according to p. 12 of the 2003 report - see footnote 1) from the time of payment to delivery of the package.

[99] Note: A corresponding figure could not be retrieved from the 2003 report.

[100] Cf. the 2003 report, p. 11 (see footnote 1).

[101] Note:One must keep in mind that these percentages do not take into account the products that were not delivered.

[102]  Note: Issues were mainly found on British (17%), German (10%), Irish (8%), Italian (7%), Austrian (6%), Danish (6%) and French (5%) websites. The working group has interpreted this as a “natural” distribution, when also taking into consideration the fact that these countries are among the largest e-commerce markets.

[103] 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.

[104] See section 4.4.3. “Trustmarks”.

[105] See section 6.2.1. (“Reimbursements”) for further details.

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This page forms part of the publication "ONLINE CROSS-BORDER MYSTERY SHOPPING – STATE OF THE e-UNION" as chapter 8 of 8.
– STATE OF THE e-UNION" as the preface.
– STATE OF THE e-UNION" as appendix 0.
Version no. 1.0, 2011-08-31
© The Competition and Consumer Authority