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Stay on the right side of returns regulations, warns trading standards

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The Trading Standards Institute has advised online retailers to make sure they are on the right side of distance selling regulations. It says failing to respect the law is a ‘false economy’.

The advice comes after a BBC investigation reported that retailer Next was in breach of European distance selling regulations. Next is now changing its returns processes.

The Distance Selling Regulations cover business to consumer transactions and mean that consumers who buy online can cancel the contract by returning the goods within seven days to get a full refund both of the goods and of the initial delivery charge. This must be paid within 30 days.

According to the Trading Standards Institute (TSI) the law doesn’t cover the consumer’s costs for returning the unwanted goods – only the refund of the initial postal charges made for delivery.

Andy Foster, operations director at TSI, said: “Most retailers comply with the regulations but we are aware of a few who are not refunding postal charges for initial delivery.

‘Withholding the refund of these charges is a false economy. If customers are left with a bad taste in the mouth, they are unlikely to return to that business. The e-commerce retail sector in the UK is worth around £80 billion a year and strong consumer protection laws like these are an essential part of raising consumer confidence to ensure the market continues to grow.”

Consumers buying goods and services online are protected by the directive, introduced in 2000, because they can’t inspect goods before they buy them. Some categories of goods, such as personalised products, are exempt.

The BBC investigation found that Next had been charging for delivery costs even when customers returned the goods within the week allowed by the regulations.

A Next spokesman said: “During the last three years Next has not offered a refund of the delivery charge. This was in line with our interpretation of the Distance Selling Directive.

“However following clarification of from the European Court of Justice in April this year on interpretation of the directive, Next is in the process of implementing necessary changes to ensure that the delivery charges will be refunded.” The spokesman said customers had not had to pay for returning the goods, though the regulations don’t say retailers have to offer free returns.

If any business is unsure of the legal requirements, it should contact its local trading standards service for guidance. Consumers who want further advice should contact Consumer Direct on 08454 04 05 06.

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