Trading Standards Institute Advice

Selling at a distance (via the internet, telephone, post, etc)

Existing consumer protection law, including that on the sale of goods and misleading advertising, applies both online and when selling to consumers at a distance by other means. Additional pieces of legislation more specific to distance selling and internet trading are the Consumer Protection (Distance Selling) Regulations 2000 and the Electronic Commerce (EC Directive) Regulations 2002.

These Regulations require consumers to be given clear information about the goods and services offered, and the right to cancel within seven working days. Clear information including the company details, terms and conditions, description of goods, cancellation rights and pricing information must be available on the website.

In the guide
What is distance selling?
Consumer Protection (Distance Selling) Regulations 2000
Electronic Commerce (EC Directive) Regulations 2002
Penalties
Further reading

What is distance selling?
Distance selling includes the following (this is not an exhaustive list):

  • internet
  • unaddressed printed matter
  • addressed printed matter
  • letter
  • press advertising with order form
  • catalogue
  • telephone with human intervention
  • telephone without human intervention (automatic calling machine, audiotext)
  • radio
  • videophone (telephone with screen)
  • videotext (microcomputer and television screen) with keyboard or touch screen
  • electronic mail (email)
  • facsimile machine (fax)
  • television (teleshopping)

Existing consumer protection law applies to distance selling (see particularly our leaflets 'A trader's guide to the civil law relating to the sale and supply of goods' and 'A guide to the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008' ).

The legislation more specific to distance selling and internet trading are the Consumer Protection (Distance Selling) Regulations 2000 and the Electronic Commerce (EC Directive) Regulations 2002.

Consumer Protection (Distance Selling) Regulations 2000
Key features of the Regulations:

  • the consumer must be given clear information about the goods or services offered
  • after making a purchase, the consumer must be sent confirmation
  • the consumer has the right to cancel within seven working days for most goods and services. This period runs from the day after the contract was concluded for services and from the day after the day of delivery for goods
  • for services, the supplier must provide the consumer with information as to how the right to cancel may be affected if the consumer agrees to performance beginning less than seven working days after the contract was concluded. This information must be provided prior to or in good time during the performance of the contract

A full list of the information that must be provided to a consumer is contained in the above legislation.

By complying with the Regulations, and providing the following information in a clear and comprehensible manner, not only are you encouraging the confidence of consumers, you are enhancing the quality of their online shopping experience.

Electronic Commerce (EC Directive) Regulations 2002
These Regulations stipulate further information that must be included on a website. Detailed guidance on the Electronic Commerce (EC Directive) Regulations 2002 is available on the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills website (originally published by the DTI as was).

The following checklist of information that must be included on your website includes items that are required by other legislation as well as those that will aid compliance with the above Regulations:

  • full company details - name, a UK geographic address and an email address
  • full terms and conditions that are readily accessible, fair and meaningful
  • a description of the goods or services being sold
  • pricing information, fully inclusive of any delivery charges, taxes, excise duty, etc
  • information about how long the offer or price applies
  • details of stages involved in the ordering process, including any costs involved in distance communication if the cost is at anything other than a standard rate
  • the different technical steps to follow to conclude a contract so that consumers are made aware of what the process will involve and the point at which they will commit themselves
  • information about the availability, delivery and dispatch of the goods
  • information about substitutes in the event that goods or services are not available, including telling the consumer that the cost of returning unsatisfactory substitute goods will be refunded
  • clear complaints procedure and policy on returning goods
  • information about withdrawal/cancellation rights
  • a statement that the UK law is the applicable law**
  • a statement indicating that, when buying goods and services on the Internet, the consumer is entering a legally binding contract
  • the technical means for identifying and correcting input errors prior to the placing of the order
  • a data protection statement*
  • a privacy policy and information about security issues*
  • a cookie (unique identifier) policy*
  • an opt-in box for unsolicited email*
  • details of any registration scheme to which you belong and your registration number, or other means of identification in that register
  • details of certain professional bodies you are registered with, your professional title and applicable rules (for example, chartered surveyor and RICS)
  • details of any code of practice to which you subscribe
  • VAT number (if appropriate)

[* These provisions are by virtue of data protection legislation and the Privacy and Electronic Communications (EC Directive) Regulations 2003, both enforced by the Information Commissioner. Detailed advice on these provisions can be found on the Information Commissioner's Office website.]

[** Regulation 4(4) of the Electronic Commerce (EC Directive) Regulations 2002 allows businesses the freedom to choose the applicable law and is also intended to aid non-UK consumers. A UK-based business, even if trading via the internet outside the UK, still has to comply with UK requirements. This does not preclude action being taken against a trader for breaches of legislation outside the UK.]

It is also strongly recommended where relevant that retail sites incorporate a system to prevent sales of age restricted products such as alcohol, spray paints, video games and DVDs to persons under the required age. There are many more goods that are subject to age restriction - see our leaflet 'Age restricted products'.

As well as the laws covered above, trading standards services enforce a range of consumer and trading legislation (covering such areas as misleading prices and product safety), that might affect you. Please browse our other leaflets to see if anything else deals with your area of business. If your business sells via auction websites, please see our leaflet 'Internet auction sites'.

Penalties
Where the breach affects the collective interest of consumers, a business may also be subject to an enforcement order by a trading standards service or other regulator. Using the Enterprise Act 2002, they can apply to the courts for an injunction against any business found not complying with the Regulations.

If breaches continue to occur, the individuals or company concerned could be held to be in contempt of court and face an unlimited fine or imprisonment. In addition, a breach of the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008 may mean that a trader could face a fine in the Magistrates' Court.

Further reading
More information can be found in the Distance Selling hub on the Trading Standards Institute website.

Please note
This leaflet is not an authoritative interpretation of the law and is intended only for guidance. Any legislation referred to, while still current, may have been amended from the form in which it was originally enacted. Please contact us for further information.

Relevant legislation
Consumer Protection (Distance Selling) Regulations 2000
Electronic Commerce (EC Directive) Regulations 2002
Privacy and Electronic Communications (EC Directive) Regulations 2003
Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008

Last reviewed/updated: May 2013

© 2014 itsa Ltd on behalf of the Trading Standards Institute.