Retailers selling online must provide full details of the product or service they're selling, as well as informing customers how to cancel and claim refunds.
Customers usually have 14 days from receipt of a product or after a service has been ordered to cancel, although some exemptions do apply to this.
Buying from online marketplaces from private sellers can be trickier, but there are some consumer protections in place that might help in the event of a dispute.
What should a retailer tell you when shopping online?
Retailers must stick to certain rules when selling online, ensuring that customers know what they are getting for their money and what they can expect from the service.
Here are some of the key things that retailers must provide to online customers in writing:
- Full description of the product or service they are selling
- Details of the price of the goods (or details of how the price will be calculated if it can't be determined immediately)
- Information on how customers will pay and how the goods or services will be delivered
- Information about delivery charges (or details of how these will be calculated if they can't be determined in advance)
- Information about the seller such as their geographical address and contact details
- Information about cancellation rights and refunds - more on this below
These are legal protections under the Consumer Contracts Regulations 2013 that apply to distance or off-premises sales.
Any failure to meet regulations also means that buyers have the right to a refund if their items aren't delivered by an agreed date. When no date was agreed, they should get a refund if the items haven't arrived more than 30 days after placing the order.
Note that the Consumer Contracts Regulations also cover contracted services ordered online or over the telephone - like broadband - although this can become more complicated.
Can you cancel when you buy something online?
Under the Consumer Contracts Regulations, customers must be provided with information on how to cancel their order and be given access to a cancellation form.
- Give customers the ability to cancel at the point of sale (through an online form or an email address, for example)
- Ensure cancelling an order is straightforward and not unnecessarily difficult
Distance sellers are required to give a statutory minimum cooling-off period of 14 days, so customers can cancel at any point within 14 days of safe delivery of the goods (there are some exceptions - see below).
It's worth making this extra clear because it's different for goods and services purchased at distance:
- For goods, the 14-day cooling-off period begins from the date a customer takes ownership of the goods (even if it goes to a safe neighbour, for example). This means we've got 14 days from the day the item is delivered to change our minds, cancel and return the product.
- For services, the 14-day cooling-off period begins the day after a customer enters into the contract.
To invoke the cooling-off period and cancel the order, customers need to contact the retailer directly.
There will often be a dedicated form to fill in or some retailers may have a phone number. It's good practice to keep track of these communications just in case there's a dispute later.
Once the order has been cancelled, customers have 14 days from that date to return the product.
For cancellations of services, there are a few things to note:
- Any deposit should be returned as part of the cancellation
- If the service has already started during the cooling-off period, the trader is allowed to cover the necessary costs of providing that service such as admin costs
Again, keeping a written record and communicating by email or letter (or following up from a phone call with an email) can help to keep things clear.
There are some exemptions for both products and services when it comes to cooling-off periods.
The following online purchases are not covered by the Consumer Contracts Regulations, although some are covered under other regulations:
- Perishable goods such as food and flowers
- Personalised goods customised by the retailer at the buyer's request
- Newspapers, periodicals and magazines (unless they are part of a subscription)
- Audio, video or computer software that was sealed when purchased but has since been opened
- Medical products and services
- Timeframe-specific accommodation, transport or leisure services
- Hire of taxis, boats or planes
It's also worth noting that, for some purchases the 14-day cooling off period does not always apply.
Immediately accessible purchases - such as digital downloads - are exempt from the 14-day cooling off period if the customer acknowledges that, by starting the download process, they are losing the right to cancel their order.
Less obviously, the refund period also doesn't always apply to purchases made on online auction sites such as eBay.
In this instance it's worth checking the website's terms and conditions for help with refunds as 'buy it now' items may provide the same protections as goods purchased in a shop while auction purchases are governed by the rules covered second hand goods - more on this below.
What if you buy something faulty online?
Faulty goods have been protected under the Consumer Rights Act since 2015, so if you buy something that doesn't work or isn't as described, you're entitled to seek a refund.
We can seek a refund if the goods we purchase:
- Are not of a satisfactory quality
- Are not fit for purpose
- Are not as described or do not meet our expectations
What this means in practice is that, if we buy something online that doesn't work properly, doesn't match what we thought we were receiving or is of poor quality, we can legally request a refund.
Thanks to the CRA, consumers have clear timeframes to work with if something goes wrong or we're unhappy with the goods received:
- Within 30 days of purchase, we can request full refunds for physical goods if they're not up to the expected standards or we can request partial refunds or repairs
- Within 30 days of purchase, we can ask the retailer of a digital product to fix a problem before we're entitled to ask for a refund
- Within six months of purchase, we can ask for a faulty product to be replaced/repaired then, if that doesn't fit the issue, we can request a refund
- Within six years of purchase, we can claim a refund/repair/replacement if we can prove a fault was there at the point of purchase
There's more detail on all this in our guide to consumer rights when shopping in the UK, but the important thing to note for online shopping is that, the sooner you report a faulty item to the seller, the more rights you have.
What are your rights when buying from online marketplaces?
Customer rights when buying from an online marketplace or online trading site can vary depending on who is selling the item.
If it's a professional retailer or trader (including a limited company), the rules we've already discussed in this guide still apply.
It becomes more complicated when we buy directly from an individual on somewhere like Facebook Marketplace because these sellers are not legally bound to help us come to an amicable solution and some are deliberately misrepresenting themselves to scam customers.
Some platforms such as PayPal, eBay and Amazon Marketplace have their own dispute resolution systems, but this can still be hit and miss in getting a solution.
So, it's important to know about the other consumer protections we cover below that can help recover money paid out for a faulty item or poor service.
Bear in mind we can also take sellers to an alternative dispute resolution service or even pursue them through the courts, but this is likely to be an expensive way of chasing a comparatively small refund.
Other consumer protections when buying online
While many online shoppers will find the protections under the Consumer Contracts Regulations and Consumer Rights Act are enough to get the retailer to pay attention and sort out any problems, we also have two more weapons in our arsenal.
These are Section 75 and chargeback, both of which relate to the payment method used to pay for goods or services.
Section 75 of the Consumer Credit Act
Although the Consumer Rights Act gives us a framework for our rights as customers, what do we do if a retailer refuses to play ball?
In these cases, Section 75 of the Consumer Credit Act can be useful for goods that cost more than £100.
This clause states that credit card providers are equally liable, along with retailers, to ensure that goods comply with the consumer laws detailed above.
As such, if someone was having difficulty with a retailer, they could also apply to the credit card company to recover any losses.
There are restrictions, however, and we detail those in our full guide to Section 75.
It's also worth noting that card issuers Visa, Mastercard and American Express also operate a system of "double protection" to help cardholders when they have a claim under existing consumer law.
This system is known as chargeback. It can be used when purchased items are damaged or not as described, when they do not arrive at all, or when the retailer has gone out of business. Consumers can ask the card provider to help them claim back some of the money they have lost.
It covers all debit and credit card transactions and can be useful for purchase values under £100, which are not covered by Section 75.
Read more about chargeback and when it can be useful.
Protect yourself when shopping online
One final point: we should all be vigilant when shopping online.
As we explain in our guide to staying safe online while shopping, fraud and phishing scams are common online and we need to be cautious when purchasing goods or services, especially from second-hand traders.
Five ways to shop safely online
The best protection against bad online retail experiences and online fraud is to take as much care as possible to keep safe in the first place.
Here are our top tips:
- Shop on trusted pages: Look for sites that have a clear returns policy already in place and that go to an encrypted page (usually a padlock icon on the top left or bottom right hand of the browser will indicate this).
- Read and reread product descriptions: Many disputes with retailers can be avoided or resolved more quickly if we know exactly what we're buying in the first place.
- Suspicious? Check reviews online: News about dodgy retailers travels fast online. Don't believe everything but do check out retailers that seem suspicious. Read more about one red flag - behavioural adverts - that follow users around the web.
- Check how payment providers help with problems: We've seen that credit card users get statutory assistance from their card provider for some purchases, and they can also choose additional insurance as well. Anyone who isn't sure whether they have additional protection should check with their card provider. Remember that third party payment providers, such as PayPal, may be able to help too.
- Returns should be sooner rather than later: Once someone has decided to return a product, it's helpful for all parties to do so within the time limits set out in law. For online purchases stick to the 14-day return and refund time frame set out in the Consumer Contracts Regulations. In addition, many of the points in the Consumer Rights Act are easier to argue the sooner the fault is reported.
On this last point, there is one other thing to note. If, for whatever reason, it wasn't clear within the legal time frames that the product or service was faulty or not as described, be persistent.
Under the Limitation Act, we have up to six years after we've bought something to complain about it. In Scotland, a similar piece of legislation called the Prescription and Limitation Act gives customers five years after purchase to complain.
Summary: Strong protections in place
Customers shopping online have strong legal protections if something goes wrong, with retailers forced to engage if a customer wants to cancel within 14 days or if the product purchased is faulty.
Here are five things to remember about your rights when shopping online:
- Retailers must provide full details about the goods or services at the point of purchase, including their cancellation policies.
- Customers are given a 14-day cooling-off period to change their mind after purchasing, although there are some exemptions in place.
- Goods must be of satisfactory quality, be fit for purpose and be as described or we can claim a refund.
- Buying from an online marketplace from a private seller comes with more risks and there are fewer legal protections.
- Customers can consider using section 75 or chargeback protections in the event of a dispute between them and a retailer/private seller.
The legal protections afforded to customers under the Consumer Contracts Regulations and the Consumer Rights Act are important tools when dealing with professional retailers and traders.
Where protections become more difficult to enforce is when we buy online from a private seller who doesn't want to cooperate with any complaints or who had no intention of providing the product in the first place.
So, be smart when shopping online and don't be afraid to close the browser window and shop elsewhere if you're unsure about a retailer or trader.