According to the 2017 European Consumer Scoreboard, a whopping 55% of EU citizens shop online. Given that this number is only going to increase in the future, it is not surprising that the EU is paying attention to the online retail market and how it can ensure that European consumers can shop safely online.
But what does shopping safely online actually mean? Within the context of online shopping, the conceptualisation of safety for European consumers has multiple dimensions. These include safety in terms of receiving goods that are genuine and physically safe, being able to securely pay for these goods and having consumer rights.
Currently, EU legislation protects consumers in a number of ways which many of us might take for granted. For instance, the EU ensures that traders must inform consumers of the total price for their purchase, including all extra costs and additional fees which traders might otherwise try to state separately to deceive consumers with the illusion of low prices. Charging extra costs for additional services, such as gift wrapping or express shipping, must also be explicitly agreed by consumers.
Furthermore, the EU also ensures that, like with the store-bought products, all consumers have a 2-year minimum guarantee on products that are ordered online and are entitled to get a refund if goods which they ordered are not delivered within 30 days.
Going beyond this, the EU has also set up the “Product Safety Pledge”, a voluntary scheme through which online marketplaces commit to ensuring the safety of non-food products that are sold online. Specifically, the pledge facilitates the recall and removal of products that are identified as unsafe through collaborations with store providers are authorities. The initial signatories of the pledge were Amazon, eBay, Rakuten and Alibaba.
In addition to these confidence-enhancing measures for tangible goods and services, the EU also allows consumers to feel more confident by giving them digital consumer rights for intangible services like software, streaming or game downloads. Specifically, the EU approved a consumer rights package in 2018 which ensures that if consumers buy access to streaming services or download games, then they have a right to a refund or getting their problem fixed in case of any service quality issues. Furthermore, the EU established that purchasers of smart goods have a legal entitlement to software updates as a countermeasure to avoid the phenomenon of early obsolescence.
Given that the aforementioned rights and initiatives all lie in the past, what is the EU doing at the moment in terms of online shopping security? Currently, the EU is also working on a number of developments that can enhance consumer safety when shopping online. For instance, things often go wrong when shopping online. In such cases the mechanisms for consumers to deal with companies who engage in malevolent practices, such as deceiving consumers on product characteristics through aggressive online advertising, are still decided individually by member states. The EU is therefore working on standardising the rights that consumers have in such cases.
Another aspect of online shopping that the EU is currently looking closely at are price comparisons. Many EU consumers also use price comparison websites to ensure that they are purchasing products at the best available price. However, many price comparison websites use untransparent mechanisms to list prices and place sponsored results at the top of their listings. The EU is therefore looking at proposals that would require such websites to be more transparent and explain how their results are generated.
Therefore, the EU has adopted and is continuing to adopt a number of measures to ensure that consumers feel confident whilst shopping online. In addition to existing measures that give consumers the same consumer rights for online purchases as for offline purchases, the EU is working on further measures to improve product safety, complaint mechanisms and transparency for price comparisons websites.