Shopping for goods online
Going shopping and looking around for the best deals is time-consuming and tiring. The summer heat and lack of parking are not encouraging either.
On the other hand, online shopping may be done from the comfort of our home, any time during the day or night, and offers a vast selection of products or services to choose from at competitive prices.
Its main drawbacks are that we cannot physically feel or touch the products we are interested in buying, and that the seller may be operating from overseas. We may also be worried that our legal rights may be different to when we are not buying online. In actual fact, our rights are stronger when shopping online.
Since, with online shopping, our choice mainly depends on the information given to us by the seller, the Distance Selling Regulations require that any description or information about goods/services should be accurate, not misleading.
These regulations also specify the kind of information consumers should be given when buying through a distant means of communication.
This information should include: the name and address of the trader; a description of the main characteristics of the goods/services offered for sale; the price, including taxes and delivery costs, and how payment is to be made; the cost of communication between parties if this is above a basic rate; how the goods/ service are to be delivered or performed; the time for which the offer/ price remains valid; and information on our right to cancel the sale.
Additionally, the regulations also stipulate that the web trader must provide: details on how the contract may be cancelled; conditions for terminating the contract if it is of unlimited duration or for longer than one year; situations when the right of cancellation is not available; and information on after-sale services and commercial guarantees.
The right to cancel (cooling-off period)
When we purchase goods/services online, our most important additional right is to cancel any purchases made within 15 days. We do not need to give any reason and we should not incur any penalties. We may, however, have to pay for the cost of returning the goods to the supplier.
The 15-day cooling-off period applies to both goods and services. In case of goods, this period begins from delivery date; in the case of services, it kicks off from the date of conclusion of the contract.
It must, however, be noted that the European Directive 97/7/EC on distance selling stipulates a minimum cancellation period of seven days. So if the contract is made with a trader outside Malta, but within the EU, the cooling-off period could be less than 15 days.
If the trader fails to provide us with the necessary information prior to the conclusion of the contract, or the information does not meet the requirements requested in the regulations, in such cases the cancellation period is extended to three months.
Should we decide to avail ourselves of the right of cancellation, the trader must return the payment as soon as possible, within a maximum period of 30 days from the date of cancellation.
The right to cancel may be exercised on almost all types of goods.
There are, however, some exceptions which include the following: goods made to our specifications or clearly personalised or which, by reason of their nature, cannot be returned or are liable to deteriorate or expire rapidly, such as freshly cut flowers or fresh food; audio or video recordings or computer software that were unsealed by us; newspapers, periodicals, magazines; gaming and lottery service; services that began, with our consent, before the end of the cooling-off period; goods or services whose price is dependent on fluctuation and therefore cannot be controlled by the supplier.
The cooling-off period also does not cover the purchase of plane, train, concert tickets or hotel bookings; in other words, contracts for the provision of transport, accommodation, catering or leisure services which are to be supplied by a specific time or date.
Internet auctions and goods bought from private individuals are also excluded from the Distance Selling Regulations, and hence from the cooling-off period.
The reason for this is that consumer legislation specifically covers purchases that involve private individuals buying goods or services from a seller acting in the course of his business, trade or profession.
Ms Vella is senior information officer, Office for Consumer Affairs, Malta Competition and Consumer Affairs Authority.