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The BBC's Nicola Carslaw
"One of the largest surveys of internet shopping sites found that 38% of orders did not arrive in the time specified"
 real 28k

Thursday, 12 October, 2000, 17:10 GMT
Net shopping 'pitfalls' warning
Online shopping
By BBC consumer correspondent, Nicola Carslaw

It might seem temptingly easy to shop online.

But a UK-wide survey of 102 companies shows the service might not be as good as in the high street.

An undercover online shopping trawl by trading standards officers found that almost 40% of goods ordered did not arrive on time.

And 17% were not delivered at all.

Officers say some of the biggest names in retailing are not getting their customer service right.

High Street shopping  wins
Customer service better in person

The launch of a campaign to guide internet shoppers through the web is part of National Consumer Week, which starts officially on Monday, 16 October.

When trading standards professionals in Oxfordshire, Warwickshire and Shropshire attempted to make test purchases they were appalled by the service in 37% of cases.

It was because systems crashed, companies vanished, items were out of stock or orders simply forgotten.

Examples highlighted include a company which took credit card details and then disappeared.

High Street beats internet

A national flower delivery firm that failed to deliver but took the money from the credit card anyway.

And a confectionery company whose chocolates arrived crushed.

Noel Hunter, the director of Warwickshire Trading Standards, said shoppers would have had their products quicker, cheaper and with less hassle had they visited their local high street.

Phil Dart experienced first hand how shopping online can go wrong when he booked a dream family holiday.

The internet site featured an idyllic beach. But it failed to show that to reach it you had to cross a lorry park.

It also did not say the beach had been hit by a hurricane and the drinks hut and other facilities were closed.

'Worst disappointment'

Neither did the site show the smashed sunbeds and the fact that there was now not the promised rollerblade park that Phil's son Nick was so looking forward to trying out.

He said: "The worst disappointment was thinking we had booked a holiday of a lifetime, but wondering whether to spend two weeks kicking up a fuss or make the best of it.

"It was a difficult decision, especially when you have an eleven-year-old with you."

He made a fuss afterwards. He took the travel firm to the small claims court and was awarded 1400 compensation.

Ironically, perhaps, Phil is a trading standards officer.

His message to online shoppers is be vigilant.

If even a trading standards officer can get caught in the web, anyone can.

Authoritative advice

The Trading Standards Institute has issued a free booklet called Shopping on the Internet - Better Safe Than Sorry.

It is designed to answer consumer concerns and advise us about the safest way to buy goods online.

The booklet offers the following advice:

  • Shop around for the best deals.
  • Find out as much as possible about the company you are dealing with.
  • If you are buying from abroad, check that the electrical systems will work safely in the UK - and, if buying clothing, be aware that other countries may use different size codes.
  • Make sure you can choose the time and place for delivery and know the costs of delivery.
  • Limit your risks if selecting a company outside the UK and EU countries by not purchasing anything too expensive.
  • Print off a copy of the advertisement and your order with its number, date and details of items purchased.
  • Pay by credit card, especially if the cost is more than 100, as the card company will be jointly liable if things go wrong.
  • Do not give out too much information about yourself and select a secure site.
  • If buying from private individuals or online auctions you have fewer rights.
  • Finally, if the offer sounds too good to be true - chances are it is!

Meanwhile, Allan Charlesworth, the institute's chief executive said that some of the biggest names in retailing were not getting customer service right in their e-commerce trading.

Daniel Gestetner, chief executive of Shopsmart.com, which compares prices offered by online retailers, said he welcomed the trading standards Institute findings.

"After carrying out stringent checks we have halved the number of retailers on our site to 1,000.

"The consumer's experience needs to be improved if we are to make a true success of e-commerce in the UK,'' he said.

Amazon fight back

Some online retailers question whether service is really worse on the internet than on the high street.

"Great retailers do a great job for their customers, customers should make sure they are doing business with great retailers, whether it is on the high street or the internet," Amazon.co.uk managing director Steve Frazier said.

He added: "We have over two million customers now [and] a very high percentage of our business comes from repeat customers. That size and repeat customer rate speaks for itself."

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