The increased reliance on online shopping which Irish people built up throughout the Covid-19 crisis is likely to be here to stay for some time. Although high-street shops have reopened, there are still plenty of people who are nervous about returning to them in the wake of the pandemic. There are others who simply don't want the inconvenience of queues and social distancing.
Online shopping is not without its mishaps and dangers however, and it is therefore crucial that you understand what rights you can fall back on when things go wrong.
Here are six things you should know about your entitlements when shopping online.
You could have up to a year to change your mind about buying something
When you buy something online, you usually have the right to change your mind, cancel your order and get your money back - as long as you do so within 14 days (known as the cooling-off period) of receiving the order. You can cancel for any reason. An online trader must inform you of this right when you buy something. Otherwise, the cooling-off period is extended to 12 months from the date it would have expired if the information had been initially provided. If the trader provides the information within this 12-month period, the cooling-off period expires within 14 days of you receiving the information.
There are a number of occasions when you are not entitled to the 14-day cooling-off period -including on the purchase of plane tickets, package travel, car rental and customised products.
Bear in mind too that you must be dealing with a trader from the EU, Norway, Iceland or the UK to be entitled to the 14-day cooling-off period.
You can return something if it looks different on delivery than it did online
Let's say you ordered a coat by a well-known and reputable brand online - only to find that the coat delivered is a misshapen imitation brand.
As long as you ordered that coat from an EU-based website, you have the right to return that coat and get your money back.
"You are entitled to a very clear description of the goods online," said Dr Cyril Sullivan, director of European Consumer Centre (ECC) Ireland. "You have the right to return your goods if the items are not as described [online] - or if the quality is not what you expected. However, you don't have those rights if you bought the item from China or the US - or another country outside the EU [apart from Norway, Iceland or the UK]. A non-EU trader may still take care of you to ensure your continuity of custom - but your legal entitlements may be diminished, so when buying online be very aware of where the trader resides."
Under EU law, you should be provided with the online shop's full contact details - including the trader's address and telephone number. Avoid buying online if you can't find these details as it may mean that the retailer is not based in the EU - and if this is the case, you might not have any recourse if things go wrong. Do not assume a trader is based in the country indicated by its web address (such as .ie for Ireland).
You can refuse to pay a follow-up bill which hadn't been flagged upfront
Let's say you order something from an online retailer, pay the full price of the item based on what you are notified at that stage, and you later receive a second invoice in the post requesting a separate payment for Value Added Tax (VAT) or delivery. This is against EU law and so you shouldn't have to pay that extra charge (as long as you are dealing with an EU trader).
"The retailer should have told you about any delivery charges or taxes upfront [when you initially ordered]," said Sullivan. "The retailer can't surprise you - or charge you more for something after you've paid for it. You have to be told the full price of something at the outset."
So when you initially order something online, you should be told of any VAT or delivery charges that apply before you pay for that item online (as long as you're covered by EU law).
ECC Ireland recently received a complaint from a consumer who had bought an item online from a UK retailer - only to receive a separate invoice for VAT after paying for the product. "The trader had assumed the consumer was a business and so no VAT was applied [to the initial price charged]," said Sullivan. "The trader subsequently discovered the person wasn't a business and sent a second invoice for VAT. Even though the VAT charge was correct, as the trader had not told the consumer about it upfront [when the item was first ordered and paid for], the company was not allowed to charge it."
It's not up to the courier to rectify a breakage, even if he dropped your order
One of the biggest issues which consumers ran into with online shopping over the Covid-19 lockdown arose after items delivered were broken, according to Sullivan.
"Even if the item you ordered online is broken because the courier dropped it while delivering it, your rights [under EU law] are very clear here - the responsibility is on the trader to deliver the item in good order," said Sullivan. "So if an item arrives broken, tell the trader immediately - and you should be refunded for it."
You are however liable for the diminished value of the goods if you handled them in a way which either broke or damaged them.
You shouldn't be waiting longer than 30 days for delivery
Many people faced long delays for delivery of online orders during the coronavirus crisis - and while these delays may be easing now, delivery of some items could still take longer than before the pandemic.
"Under EU regulations, a trader is obliged to deliver an item to you within 30 days - so regardless of whether or not the courier is at fault [for a delayed or non-delivery], the responsibility is on the trader to deliver on time," said Sullivan. "The only way that right is diminished is if you asked the trader to allow you to arrange your own delivery of the item."
Furthermore, if the retailer agreed to deliver the goods within a certain time (that is much shorter than 30 days), it should meet that deadline. If the trader has not delivered the goods within the time agreed, you can re-request delivery within an extra period of time appropriate to the circumstances. Keep proof this has been done. If the trader still has not delivered the goods within that additional time, you have the right to end the contract and get a refund.
The product you buy should be safe
One of the biggest risks you face when buying online is that the product may not meet EU safety standards - and could therefore be dangerous. "Our network [of consumer groups] has found many outright dangerous products sold online," said Monique Goyens, director general with the European Consumer Organisation (BEUC).
Earlier this year, six consumer groups from the BEUC network tested 250 electrical goods, toys, cosmetics and other products bought from online marketplaces. "Two-thirds of the 250 products failed safety tests," said Goyens. "This included smoke and carbon monoxide alarms which did not detect smoke or carbon monoxide."
The tests found some toys were 200 times over the legal limit for chemicals.
"Online marketplaces are very popular with consumers - perhaps even more so due to Covid-19," said Goyens. "The crucial thing to beware of is that a product will often be sold through these marketplaces by third-party traders. These traders may be based outside Europe and therefore do not necessarily respect European standards - that is the main difficulty people might, unwittingly, face."
To reduce the risk of buying an unsafe product, consumers should check sellers' details for strange business names or lack of contact details. "People should also avoid unbranded products, products from unknown brands, or those that simply appear too cheap to be true," said Goyens. "This is especially the case for electronic products, such as chargers - as they have been shown to spontaneously catch fire and could create huge damage." Always check something you buy has a genuine CE mark. Businesses are required by law to ensure the products they sell conform to EU and Irish safety regulations and standards. As always, buyer beware.
Returning item to shop after lockdown
Let us say you bought a dress in a high street store just before lockdown. You only tried it on when you got home and it didn't fit. Due to lockdown, you haven't been able to return it to the shop until now. But is it too late to do so?
"Check the details of the shop's returns policy - and the timeframe that applies," said a spokeswoman for the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission (CCPC). "Under consumer law, items bought in store can only be returned if they are faulty. Some businesses however offer exchanges or refunds if consumers change their mind. This is considered a goodwill gesture by the shop - but it is not a legal requirement. Businesses also tend to have a time limit on this - for example, you may have to return items within 28 days. If the retailer doesn't accept returns which are not faulty, or if you are outside the timeframe for returning it, ask the shop if it would be willing to adapt its policy due to the exceptional circumstances arising from Covid-19 - as a goodwill gesture. If the shop will not offer a refund, you can ask if it could facilitate either a credit note or an exchange. However, there is no obligation on the shop to facilitate any of these requests."
Paying via apps
Let us say you downloaded an app which allows you to pay for a meal through your smartphone - without using a card machine. You're wondering if it's safe to pay for meals in this way.
"Scammers often use a card-reading device and decoding software to steal credit and debit card details - and then use these details to pay for items online," said the CCPC. "With contactless technology, they only need to have the device close to your card, so it is possible for them to intercept your details while your cards are in your pocket or bag. To buy items online, the three digit CVV security code on the back of the card is generally needed along with the cardholder's name, but this is not always the case and some items can be bought without these.
"So when using any contactless payment facility - whether it be through a shopping app on your smartphone or with your debit or credit card, it's important to be careful to secure your personal details and to avoid falling foul of potential scammers."
Click & Collect
When using 'click and collect' services, you have the same rights and protections that you typically would have when shopping online - including the right to cancel within 14 days. Certain items are excluded from this cooling-off period however.
"These include perishable goods (such as food), items that have been unsealed or which cannot be returned for hygiene reasons (such as underwear or cosmetics) and custom-made goods," said the CCPC.