The Waving Flag: Buying Online: Some Tips

Saturday 28 August 2021

Buying Online: Some Tips

We all buy things online.  In recent years buying online has become the only way we can buy certain hobby items.

Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

Setting up an e-commerce web site is now very easy.  There are lots of "boiler plate" solutions out there.  So much so that every man and his dog seems to have a shopping cart.  However easy it is to get started, running a website well and complying with all the UK regulations is a different matter

Regular readers will know that I used to run an online business selling toy soldiers until I retired earlier this year after nearly twenty years.  So what follows is somewhat of a whinge based on my background knowledge and my recent buying experiences as a regular punter.

If you don't want to read a critical article stop now.  However I always use the issues below to assess whether a business is being run properly and safe to buy from.

Say Who You Really Are
There are lots of laws that require UK businesses, large & small, to say who they are:

  • The Distance Selling Regulations (DSR) require all businesses to display their business address, an email address and a geographic (landline) telephone number in an easily accessible location on their web site(s).
  • The HMRC (UK tax authorities) require all VAT (Value Added Tax) registered businesses to display their VAT registration number in a prominent location on all business paperwork, invoices and this includes web pages.  This is so buyers can confirm the VAT status of the business and check that the VAT number is valid if they want to.
  • The UK Companies Act requires all limited companies to display their company registration number & registered address on all business paperwork and this includes web pages.  Plus, if they are trading under a brand name, this must be stated along with the name and details of the parent company.

This is easily dealt with by a simple web page footer on every web page displaying the relevant information but this isn't always the case.  In my opinion there are only three reasons for this: ignorance, incompetence or they have something to hide.

The most common breach is the use of a contact form coupled with a mobile number: this is neither sufficient nor legal.  Tucking the business address and contact details way down in a lengthy set of terms & conditions isn't sufficient either.  Failing to provide a VAT & Company Registration number is surprisingly common too.

If you're looking to buy something from a new and unknown vendor these simple checks will tell you quite a lot about the thoroughness and competence of the business owner.

Here's an example of good practice from the page footer used by SHQ Miniatures:

How Much!
There are two issues that I always check: delivery costs & VAT levied if applicable.

  • I really hate web sites that don't provide clear & readily accessible information on delivery costs.  It's not about unreasonable charges it's that I don't want to create an order (or an account) just to find out how much delivery will be.
  • The DSR requires VAT registered businesses to display tax inclusive prices.  I think businesses displaying ex-VAT prices do so in the hope that the lower display prices will encourage people to order.

In addition, the VAT regulations require all VAT registered businesses to display the VAT added on all invoices.  This is really helpful for buyers outside the UK where VAT may or may not be removed depending on how the business handles export sales.

Returns Policy
Buying from marketplaces such as Amazon or eBay offers buyers additional protection over and above their statutory rights.  In fact I've often seen comments along the lines that eBay penalises sellers and nearly always favours the buyer.

Even so, a UK buyer's statutory rights under the DSR are very strong and are clearly stated in the regulations. However, I have often seen terms & conditions and returns policies that try to impose additional barriers and costs to making a return.

Let's be clear, if an item is defective a businesses cannot:

  • Make you wait while they create a return number,
  • Fail to pay for return postage,
  • Make you pay for return postage,
  • Refuse to refund the cost of the initial delivery,
  • Delay payment until they've received the returned item(s).

All these items break the Distance Selling Regulations for defective items.  All the businesses that do this either know it's wrong (and don't care) or think that they can set their own terms of business in their favour.

If you don't like an item then you should pay for the return but all the above are blatant attempts to save the business money at your expense. This tells you more about the ethics behind the business than anything else they may publish.

It's Not All Bad
The best way round this with small orders is to pay by PayPal if at all possible.  For large orders over a £100 use a credit card.

This is especially true when buying from businesses outside the UK.  The business has no chance of avoiding their responsibilities when arguing with PayPal or your credit card company.

I have had excellent service from many wargames businesses who have delivered goods quickly and rectified mistakes promptly with the minimum of fuss.  I would particularly like to publicly thank Essex Miniatures who have been brilliant rectifying a few minor glitches with my recent orders with a simple phone call.

Finally, if you've additional tips or would like to praise or blame a business do leave a comment.

1 comment :

Drew Jarman said...

I 2nd you comments about Essex Miniatures. Mike has always been good about dealing with order problems. D

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