Started your Christmas shopping yet? Then you'd better get ready because from next week, officially, 'tis the season.
In 2018, over half of us bought something online either daily or weekly, according to PwC. And that's not including groceries. Books, music, movies and video games top the list, followed by clothing and footwear, consumer electronics, health and beauty, jewellery, and toys.
With our busiest online shopping days Black Friday (November 28th) and Cyber Monday (December 2nd) falling a week closer to Christmas than in 2018, and also closer to monthly pay dates, our zeal is about to reach its annual peak.
But what are the pros and cons of buying online? Knowing your rights and how to spot a scam will not only score you the best deal but keep you safe into the bargain too.
Where in the world?
Research by PayPal shows that people in Ireland spend about €2.7 billion on foreign-owned websites. Where a website is based has a big impact on your consumer rights. Shopping from an EU-based outfit pays off.
“If you are buying within the EU, you have really strong protections,” says Áine Carroll, director of communications and policy at the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission (CCPC). “You could even argue that they give you protections that you wouldn’t have if you bought in a shop.”
Shops on the high street aren’t obliged to give you a refund if you change your mind. But if you buy online from an EU website, you are entitled to return something and get a refund.
So if you can’t make up your mind about that dress for the office Christmas party, there’s no need to get hot under the collar. Thanks to the EU Consumer Rights Directive, you have 14 days from the date you receive the item to notify the business that you want to cancel. You then have a further 14 days to return it, in good order, to the seller.
Also, under the directive, you are entitled to look at the item you have bought to the extent you would look at it in a shop, says Carroll. “If the curtains you bought are bundled up and you need to hold them up to make sure they are the right length, that would be acceptable.”
But there’s no point in having rights if you don’t know about them. CCPC research shows as many as a third of us don’t know that we have the right to return goods purchased online for a refund. Fewer still correctly identified the length of the 14-day cooling-off period. If you are prone to online binges only to suffer shopper’s remorse later, exercise your rights as an EU citizen and send stuff back.
A word of warning, just because a site has a .ie or .co.uk web address doesn’t mean it is based in the EU, warns Carroll. “If you are transacting with a website you haven’t bought from before, have a hunt around the website and find a geographical address.”
Buying outside the EU
If you are buying from a site outside the EU, things are different. Those $70 runners are only a bargain if they fit. If they are too small and you want to return them, it comes down to the terms and conditions of the retailer.
“You need to understand in what circumstances you can return something and how much time you have to return it,” says Carroll. “If you are buying from somewhere far away, and if you only have seven days to return it, it may not get there on time.”
If those shoes have a hole in them, however, you can rely on your rights under the Sale of Goods and Supply of Services Act. This provides the options of repair, replacement or refund if something is wrong. Sticking to reputable companies can spare angst, says Carroll.
“If you are dealing with an ‘unreputable’ company, you are going to find it very hard to get satisfaction from them.”
Beware the sneaky add-ons too. One of the complications of buying outside the EU is VAT. Those three little letters might explain why the price of a telly on one website is vastly cheaper than another. If the price is listed as “duty paid”, then you are covered. There’s nothing worse than bagging a bargain only to end up paying the VAT to the courier who delivers to your door. Worse still if it’s being delivered as a gift. Scarlet for you.
Stand and deliver
With Santa working to his December 24th deadline, delivery dates are critical. Over half of us who have bought clothing or footwear online experienced difficulties with our purchase, according to the CCPC. Delayed delivery was the most common complaint. An item purchased from an EU-based website must be delivered within 30 days, or within the timeframe promised. If it’s not, then you have the right to cancel.
What you might not know is that if you return an item delivered to you by standard postage, the retailer must refund the cost of posting it to you.
Using a virtual address service can allow you to buy products not usually available to Republic of Ireland customers. It can also mean lower delivery charges by having an item shipped to a “virtual address” in Northern Ireland and then on to the Republic where you can pick it up. When using such a third party carrier however, know how much liability it will accept if your goods are stolen, lost or damaged.
“What we would say is that, if you’re using a third party delivery service, review the terms and conditions beforehand and be sure that the level of liability coverage is sufficient,” says the CCPC.
Click and collect can save
Click and collect is another popular option that can sometimes work out cheaper. Buy the gorgeous Tilda wool coat from the .co.uk website of British retailer Hobbs and it’s yours for £299 sterling. Delivery to your door in three to five days costs €10, or collect it from the retailer’s Dundrum store in seven working days, picking it up within 14 days, for free.
Buy the same coat from their Irish website for €348. Had you made the purchase on November 11th for example, exchange rates could yield you €12 saving.
EU “geo-blocking” legislation brought in last year means consumers can no longer be restricted from accessing websites based on their location. So if a .co.uk website tries to steer to towards their .ie site and euro prices, you can decline and shop on in sterling.
In the frenzy of bargain hunting, it’s easy to become addled. And fraudsters know it. Some 75-80 per cent of card fraud takes place online and you’re an easy target if you don’t know what to look for.
"Make sure to check for signs that the website is secure," says Jillian Heffernan of Banking and Payments Federation Ireland (BPFI). "Look for the padlock symbol in the address bar and the letters 'HTTPS' at the start of the website address. The 'S' stands for secure and is a good indicator that the retailer is reputable and safe."
Fake websites are two-a-penny and can be very convincing. Hoverboards were a must-have Christmas item of 2017. A convincing fake website saw a number of people stung to the tune of €700 each. When pursued, the fraudsters even faked signed delivery notices for products that never existed. Gobsmacked consumers were left seriously out of pocket and with a hoverboard-shaped gap under the Christmas tree.
Think you are too savvy to be stung? Research by FraudSmart, a fraud-awareness initiative from all the main banks, shows a third of us have lost money to a fraudster. The average amount stolen is over €1,000.
Shopping on the go
One in five of us are shopping via mobile phone weekly or more frequently, according to PwC. Research potential purchases while on the go to your hearts content but, when making payment, avoid public wifi which is easily hacked and turn off Bluetooth – your own 3G or 4G network is safest.
Clicking offers on social media is another no-no, says Heffernan. “Go to the company’s website independently to see if the deal is being offered by them.” Rogue ads can take you to a fake website, harvest your bank details and charge your account.
Insidious subscriptions are another pest. Seemingly free trials of beauty products are currently in vogue, says Heffernan. If you are asked to provide payment details, check that you’re not signing up to a reoccurring subscription charge.
What has the EU ever done for us? When it comes to consumer protection, quite a lot actually. But what happens if our nearest neighbour moves out? Well, as the ad slogan goes, when they’re gone, they are definitely gone.
“Once the UK leaves the EU, whether that be straight away or after a transition period, they will no longer be a member of the single market,” says the CCPC’s Áine Carroll. “So all of the rights you have under the Consumer Rights Directive when you shop online will be gone.”
Similar laws may be passed in the UK, or businesses may decide to continue those policies, but our statutory legal right to them will be gone.
Got a problem?
While the CPPC won’t chase down the baddies for you, call its helpline for information on your rights (1890 432 432).
When it comes to card fraud, don’t count on an automatic refund from your bank, says the BPFI’s Jillian Heffernan. “If you have shared your card number and pin, the banks will look at it on a case-by-case basis.”