The Consumers’ Association’s on-line consumer confidence building scheme has become too successful to afford, but with growing legal regulation of the area do we really need digital trust kitemarks any more?
Topic: Selling on-line
Who: The Consumers' Association
Where: January 2003
The Consumers' Association announced that it was closing its "Which? Web Trader" on-line consumer confidence building scheme after 3½ years. The scheme had worked well and was recognised to be the first of its kind that really worked. Backed by a well-monitored code and a kitemark, the system achieved a sufficiently high profile to attract over 8,000 applications from e-traders for the membership which brought with it an entitlement to fly the Which? Web Trader kitemark. 2,700 of these applications were vetted and accepted and over the 42 months of the scheme's operation over 2,000 disputes have been resolved on behalf of consumers.
However, the operation of the scheme has not been without cost, which the Consumers' Association has not felt able to defray by way of seeking payment for membership from traders who have registered with the scheme. To seek such payment, the Consumers Association said, would have compromised its independence. Without those payments, however, the cost has become "significant" and one which the Consumers' Association felt it could no longer live with. As a result, Which? Web Trader will close on 31 January 2003 and the logos will be withdrawn from traders' sites.
Why this matters:
Depending on which way one looks at this, this is either a huge blow for consumer confidence in buying on-line, or a sign that we have reached the end of the beginning for e-tailing, because with statutory regulation of the area burgeoning, the need for voluntary schemes of this kind has gone.
Marketinglaw's take on digital sales codes has been that there have been far too many jostling for attention, which has led to more consumer confusion rather than more confidence in the e-tailing process. Having said this, the Which? Web Trader scheme was the first scheme to qualify under the Government's "Trust UK" umbrella on-line consumer confidence scheme launched with a muted fanfare in 2000. The idea of this scheme was to set a benchmark code against which all schemes such as Which? Web Trader should be judged, so that only those which passed the test qualified for the Government's "Trust UK" kitemark. Since that scheme's launch there has been little further publicity given to the initiative. At present marketinglaw is unclear whether any other on-line consumer confidence schemes have sought or achieved the "Trust UK" seal of approval since the initial schemes which qualified (Which? Web Trader, the DMA on-line code and the Advertising Standards Authority's Admark scheme). If so, this development must inevitably put a very large question mark over the initiative's future.
So does this mean the beginning of the end for voluntary on-line consumer confidence schemes/codes/kite marks? Our suspicion is that it does, but much may depend on the ability and resources of the enforcers of the statutory obligations now applicable to this sector (e.g. the Consumer Protection (Distance Selling) Regulations 2000 and the Electronic Commerce (EC Directive) Regulations 2002.