Is “Free UK delivery” misleading if in fact there are charges for delivery to more remote areas? The OFT has published guidance on this and other issues to help online businesses improve services to more far flung parts. Mark Smith reports.
Topic: Distance selling
Who: Office of Fair Trading
When: 18 September 2012
Law stated as at: 4 October 2012
The Office of Fair Trading has issued new guidance to help online businesses comply with the law and provide a better service to consumers living in remote areas of the UK.
Approximately half a million people are considered by the OFT to live in remote areas, including vast tracts of the Scottish Highlands and Islands, much of central Wales and even parts of the author's native Northumberland! While the internet allows those living in remote areas to access a wider range of suppliers than they can locally, the OFT has found that delivery terms and costs can make it difficult for them to get the best value from the online marketplace.
In a call for evidence earlier this year, the OFT heard from people unhappy about delivery costs being presented late in the buying process, let down by suppliers refusing to deliver to remote locations and misled by sites that promised "Free UK Delivery" but imposed delivery charges.
The new guidance recommends online businesses that to be compliant with the law they should:
- display delivery charges clearly and early on in the purchasing process;
- make sure any additional charges imposed on delivery to remote locations are justified and displayed clearly and early on in the purchasing process;
- check that when the term 'Free UK Delivery' is used, it is not misleading, for example if it doesn't include remote locations
- recognise it may take longer to deliver to remote locations and explain this clearly and early on in the purchasing process;
- only refuse to deliver to remote locations if it is justified by objective criteria, for example additional costs incurred because of the distance; and
- allow customers to return faulty goods for free, and to return unwanted goods that fall within the statutory seven-day cooling off period for free unless customers have been notified in writing that charges would apply.
It is worth flagging that the Q&A section of the OFT website states that advertising a "Free UK Delivery" policy and setting out exceptions only in detailed terms and conditions is not appropriate, and that any geographical restrictions must be highlighted more prominently.
Why this matters:
The internet has revolutionised the way those living in remote areas can shop, but current practices with respect to delivery to remote areas have left some feeling cheated. Retailers and other businesses should remember that where their delivery practices discriminate between those living in remote areas and those that don't, they need to flag any differences early and clearly in the purchase process, and avoid giving misleading messages to consumers based in remote locations.