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High Street Trading vs. Online Trading Regulations

By: Lucy Debenham BA (hons) - Updated: 17 Jul 2010 | comments*Discuss
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When shopping online, the consumer benefits greatly in that the choice of goods and services on offer is usually vast and sometimes boundless. The unlimited browsing and shopping hours also add to the convenience factor. However, the high street offers the familiarity and the physical presence should you have an enquiry or complaint about your purchase. So what exactly are the differences between the regulations governing high street and online trading, and how do they affect your rights as a consumer?

Sale of Goods Act

The first point that you should be aware of is the fact that both online and high street traders in the UK should comply with the Sale of Goods Act. The basic fundamentals of this act ensure that traders are selling goods that are fit for purpose, the goods are sold 'as described' and are fit for purpose. If, as a consumer, you believe that the goods you have received contravene these regulations, your entitlements allow to you reject the goods and receive a refund, or request a replacement, repair or compensation.

If the goods have been bought from a high street retailer, then you can return to the shop and sort out the dispute face-to-face. With an online retailer, you have to rely on the fact that the company has bona fide contact details, and ideally is UK-based so that it complies with UK regulations.

Distance Selling Regulations

There are currently regulations in place to help ensure that you are able to shop safely online, and that you are able to easily resolve disputes and problems with your online retailer. In fact, you are actually covered by more regulations designed to protect the consumer when you shop online in the UK.

The Consumer Protection (Distance Selling) Regulations stipulate that online sellers must supply the consumer with certain information before and after the purchase. The details given before the consumer purchases goods or services are known as 'prior information', and include useful data such as the seller's identity and address, a complete description of the goods or services, a complete and accurate description of the goods or services on offer, the total price including any supplementary or hidden costs such as tax, and a notification of the delivery arrangements or commencement of services.

The regulations also ensure that the consumer receives the appropriate information and confirmation after the purchase, in writing. The key features of this written confirmation include the right of the consumer to cancel the contract, the terms surrounding the cancellation, refund and returns policies, and who is responsible for the cost of goods that are not faulty or substitute.

Finally, the Distance Selling Regulations entitle you as the consumer to an unconditional 'cooling off' period of seven working days.

Internet Auctions

The big difference is most apparent when comparing the consumer rights and protective regulations governing the high street and those that apply to bought goods from an Internet auction website. If you are buying from a private seller then you have considerably less rights then you would otherwise have when purchasing online or on the high street. Although the goods must be accurately described, they do not necessarily have to be fit for purpose or of satisfactory quality. So in this instance you should always be fully aware of what you are purchasing, and always make sure you can contact the seller. Whilst the Internet auction websites may offer a complaint handling service, they do not actually have any obligations as far as consumer rights are concerned.

Where are you buying from?

The final consideration you should consider is the location and source of the goods you are purchasing. When shopping on the high street, because you are buying from a shop based in the UK, automatically you are covered by UK consumer law. However, when you are shopping online, you should always be aware of exactly where the website is based. Although a website may use a '.co.uk' URL, and may have UK in the company name, this does not necessarily mean that the company is a registered UK-based outlet that falls under UK legislation. As aforementioned, the online sellers are obliged to provide a bona fide geographical address on the website, so it is always worth checking this before you decide whether to purchase from a certain website.

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