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OFT issues guidance to online retailers over delivering to remote areas

Retailers should make it clear from the outset when residents of remote areas will be charged extra for delivery in online sales, consumer protection regulator the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) has said. 

The OFT has issued new guidance to businesses on how to comply with laws governing the distance selling of goods.

The OFT has updated its 'Distance Selling hub' to provide advice on what traders should do when selling to consumers based in remote areas of the country. The OFT launched the hub last year. 'Distance selling' refers to the sale of goods and services over the internet, as well as over the phone, via mail order, email, interactive TV or text message.

The regulator said that it had heard from individuals who were unhappy at being presented with information about "delivery costs" late on in the online purchasing process. In addition, the OFT received evidence of consumers "who felt misled" because online retailers had imposed shipping charges on them despite promising "free UK delivery". In other cases suppliers had simply refused to deliver to remote areas, it said.

Online businesses should clearly display early on in the process of a transaction any additional charges they impose for delivering to remote locations, and ensure those charges can be justified, the OFT's guidance has advised. The guidance also recommends that businesses that claim to offer 'free UK delivery' should not mislead consumers if the offer does not extend to remote locations.

Traders should also explain to consumers early on in transactions that delivery times may be longer when delivering to remote areas and should not refuse to deliver to those locations unless "it is justified by objective criteria," the OFT said. Such criteria could include where the business would incur "additional costs ... because of the distance."

Consumers based in remote locations should generally not be excluded from exercising their rights to return goods to traders, the regulator also advised.

"Online businesses ... should ... allow customers to return faulty goods for free, and to return unwanted goods that fall within the statutory seven-day cooling off period for free unless customers have been notified in writing that charges would apply," it said.

UK laws on distance selling are mainly set out in the Distance Selling Regulations (Regulations). The Regulations give shoppers specific legal protections and different cancellation rights from those buying in store.

Businesses are generally required to supply goods within 30 days or pay a refund, but the regulations state that in most circumstances online purchasers have the right to cancel an order they made within seven days of the goods being delivered and receive full refunds. Online customers are also entitled to a full refund for goods or services not provided by the date agreed with a business, the Regulations provide.

"Many of the half a million people living in remote areas feel they get a raw deal on delivery when shopping online," Kyla Brand, OFT director in Scotland, said in a statement. "We are therefore urging online businesses to use our tools to ensure these consumers receive a good level of service that meets the requirements of the law."

The Government is currently consulting on plans to reform UK consumer protection laws. It has proposed a new 'Consumer Bill of Rights' that would consolidate the 12 pieces of legislation affecting consumer rights under one Act. Under the Bill traders would be required to process refunds for distance-sold goods and services quicker, whilst the period during which distance-sold goods could be returned would also be extended. 

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