Is online shopping really the Wild, Wild West?

23 May 2022 ,  Luhann PrinslooOdirile Matladi 209
Most South Africans would agree that online transacting has become a highly preferable option for most consumers - an even expected option. That said, even if only a fleeting thought, a consumer cannot be blamed for wondering how safe all this online transacting is and what really protects us from being taken for a ride when shopping online.

South African law has evolved to try and provide similar protection to a consumer as the consumer would have during an in-person transaction, taking into account the obvious differences between online and in-person transactions. 

The Consumer Protection Act 68 of 2008 (“CPA”), Electronic Communications and Transactions Act 25 of 2002 (“ECTA”) and Protection of Personal Information Act 4 of 2013 (“POPIA”) are all relevant to establishing the protection that South African consumers have when it comes to online transactions.

So, while it may not be possible for a consumer to for example exercise the right to inspect goods in an online transaction, the CPA does mandate a supplier to provide comprehensive information about the products and services on offer. If the goods do not match up to the description provided, then at least the consumer would have the opportunity to return it and ask for a refund. Suppliers must also ensure the quality of goods and may be held liable for defective goods or any harm or loss resulting from defective goods sold by them. In this way the CPA does try and provide for similar protection as you would have as a consumer in-person.

The ECTA on the other hand applies to online transactions in instances where the CPA does not apply. The ECTA for example requires a supplier to execute a consumer’s order within thirty days from receiving the order, or as per an otherwise agreed period (typically stated in the supplier’s terms and conditions on its website), failing which the consumer shall be entitled to cancel the agreement with seven days’ written notice.

The ECTA also provides for a seven-day cooling-off period during which a consumer may elect to cancel without reason or penalty any transaction and any related credit agreement for the supply of goods after the date of the receipt of the goods. Where payment was made prior to a consumer exercising their right to cancel the transaction they are also entitled to a full refund of such payment which must be made within 30 days of the date of cancellation. 

In most cases when transacting online, personal information is required. Such personal information is protected during an online transaction through the requirement of consent to provide and process in terms of POPIA. Additionally, the protection and further dissemination of such personal information is also restricted to the extent provided for in the consent given by the consumer. 

So, it’s not a case of online is unregulated. Online consumers have the same entitlement to quality products and the correction of defects and have recourse to enforce their rights, and this cannot be excluded contractually. Yet, we all know it can be safer walking into a shop you know well than buying online on a new platform that just launched. As such it pays for consumers to pay attention to online platforms and websites, look at the T&C’s, contact details and even online reputation of the platform before embarking on a big shopping spree.

From a business perspective, it is inversely important that this consumer risk or hesitation to transact is understood and that from the get go, you set up your T&C’s and other processes to be legal and provide comfort to consumers when considering whether to engage and transact with your business. So make sure you get legal help to set this up correctly and avoid consumer apprehension being a reason your online business fails to make impact.

Disclaimer: This article is the personal opinion/view of the author(s) and is not necessarily that of the firm. The content is provided for information only and should not be seen as an exact or complete exposition of the law. Accordingly, no reliance should be placed on the content for any reason whatsoever and no action should be taken on the basis thereof unless its application and accuracy has been confirmed by a legal advisor. The firm and author(s) cannot be held liable for any prejudice or damage resulting from action taken on the basis of this content without further written confirmation by the author(s). 
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