When e-shopping doesn’t go as smoothly as it should, here’s how to help ensure you’re not left holding the bag
By Olev Edur
Notwithstanding the many negatives of the COVID-19 pandemic, this time has been a boon for online retailers, who haven’t had to navigate the lockdown rules imposed on bricks-and-mortar shopping outlets throughout much of this year and last. According to the major U.S. analytical firm Statista, retail e-commerce revenue in Canada grew from US$25.3 billion in 2019 to an estimated US$32.4 billion in 2021 and is expected to reach almost US$40.4 billion by 2025—a nearly 60 percent increase in just six years.
However, with continued online growth come continuing challenges. “Buyer beware” has always been a cardinal rule, regardless of vendor; as is the case with physical retail outlets, products bought online may be of poor quality, mislabelled or, rarely, even hazardous. But while you can handle and inspect the merchandise before buying at a store, you can’t do so online—you have only the information and pictures provided to guide you. Further, if something is amiss with an online purchase, you can’t march back to the store, product in hand, to lodge a complaint.
It’s much easier and less costly for the bad guys to set up a website than open a local store—and since it may not be clear where they’re based, harder for any of their unsatisfied customers to follow up. As a result, while the vast majority of e-transactions are problem-free, you have to be more circumspect when shopping with your computer. The following are tips on how to help avoid online-shopping hassles—and how to respond if they arise.
Shop with trusted retailers
When it comes to online-shopping safety, the best option is to deal with companies you recognize and trust. “It’s important to know who you’re dealing with,” says Consumers Council of Canada Executive Director Ken Whitehurst. “Being on the Internet doesn’t mean a vendor is safe to deal with. There are a lot of substandard products out there—but in fairness, the same can apply to street-level retailers.”
Any reputable firm will post plenty of information about themselves, including location, phone numbers and email addresses, as well as links to review sites. They also will have clearly stated refund and return guidelines. For example, some large retailers have no-questions-asked policies and will accept returns and refund requests regardless of the reason.
Sometimes a return or exchange can be made simply by fetching a prepaid return label from a company’s website, affixing it to a suitable package and sending it all off by courier or mail. In other cases, you may be required to pay for return shipping, use the original packaging and/or respond within a specified window of time. “You should always find out about a company’s exchange and return policies before buying anything,” says Whitehurst.
Know what you’re getting
The vendor should provide enough information for you to know exactly what you’re buying. This includes particulars such as model number, colour, texture and, where applicable, technical specifications such as dimensions, weight, power and capacity. Delivery details, too, should be straightforward, with estimated arrival date and tracking information.
“Don’t rush your purchase,” advises Tatiana Chabeaux-Smith, a spokesperson for Consumer Protection BC (CPBC), a non-governmental not-for-profit agency that’s been granted the power to enforce consumer-protection laws in British Columbia. “When you go to an unfamiliar website, take time to do your due diligence. Make sure you understand everything.
“Talk with friends and family: Where did they order from? Was the product of high quality? Was the service good?” she adds. “Doing these things will greatly improve your chances of having a good online-shopping experience.”
When things go wrong
What recourse do you have if a product hasn’t arrived when expected, or it’s not what you ordered, or any one of myriad other possible issues arises? First, don’t procrastinate—if there’s a problem, it’s important to act quickly because time limits may apply. Next, contact the company’s customer-support or complaints department and state your case. Politely and accurately describe the problem, avoiding resorting to anger or threats.
Keep all important documents related to your purchase on file, including receipts, warranties, bank/credit-card statements and any correspondence with the retailer. Make notes about any interactions with employees and customer-service reps, adding dates, times and names whenever possible. These may all help in processing a claims case.
However, never send original documents such as receipts when corresponding with a retailer by mail; include only copies. Some companies use their own online forms and customer-service live chats for handling client issues; if there’s no way to save these offline, take screenshots.
If you can’t get satisfaction upon your initial contact, escalate your beef: Ask to speak with a supervisor or manager. If that tactic doesn’t work, look for contact information for the firm’s president or another senior executive, and then send a letter that details your complaint. If this, too, fails to elicit a desirable response, you may have to go beyond the company and seek redress through other means.
Escalate your claim
There are a number of options when all previous attempts to resolve your complaint have not been successful, but it should be stressed that these apply only when a product is not delivered or it’s not as promised. You can’t resort to these stronger measures simply because you’ve changed your mind about an item and/or want something different.
“One important tool you have at your disposal when negotiating a reimbursement is the credit-card system,” says Whitehurst. “It may be difficult and take some time, but this system offers a potential process for reversing a charge.” However, he notes, “we’ve found in our research that people are generally more satisfied with the reimbursement processes of the bigger online merchandisers, such as Amazon and PayPal, than those of the credit-card companies.
“Of course, none of these practices are perfect,” he cautions—which is why a deeper dive into the legal system may be in order. “Each province and territory has its own consumer-protection laws,” says Daniel Bach, a partner with the London, Ont., law firm Siskinds. “In Ontario, Quebec and British Columbia, in particular, these laws are fairly strong.”
“Although the language may differ, overall these laws require three things,” says Bach. “Firstly, they require certain disclosures to be made regarding the sale.
So, for example, if you want to join a gym in Ontario, the company must provide a one-page disclosure notice.” Be prepared to supply this document when pursuing your claim.
“Secondly, these laws prohibit misrepresentation, meaning that a retailer can’t lie to you about its products and services,” Bach says. “And thirdly, they prohibit certain behaviours, such as negative-option billing,” which describes the practice of sending consumers unsolicited products and then demanding that they either return the items within a specified time period or keep them and send payment.
The governmental division dedicated to intervening when these legal requirements are not met is the Office of Consumer Affairs (OCA). To find the provincial or territorial branch in your region, go to Canada.ca, click on “Money and finances” and then scroll for “Consumer affairs.” The federal OCA’s complaint road map (from the “Consumer affairs” page result of the previous search, click on “Consumer complaints”) and the online resource Canadian Consumer Handbook (consumerhandbook.ca) might also help.
What can the OCA do? As noted by Bach, this depends on province and territory. In the case of British Columbia, for example, CPBC’s Tatiana Chabeaux-Smith says that, while statistics are unavailable, her agency has a good track record of resolving consumer complaints. “Statistics are tricky, because if people use our forms to contact vendors or their credit-card companies, they usually don’t come back to us for help. But for those that do return, we have a pretty good success rate.”
Of course, as Whitehurst notes, some issues can fall beyond the purview of the OCA , but your local office might nonetheless be able to suggest alternative resources. “There are areas subject to special arbitration processes, such as telecom and financial products,” Bach says.
“There are also exceptional situations concerning warranties, for which there are added available protections. Special rules, too, apply to subscriptions.”
Consider your legal rights
If you can’t get resolution from foreign or even local vendors by other means, you could take legal action. Small claims court can be an informal and inexpensive way to resolve disputes when the amount involved is relatively small—in some provinces, for example, the claim limit is $25,000. However, be prepared to cover costs for legal fees, for serving notices and for paying witnesses, if applicable. Of course, all of these expenses may be recouped as part of your award, should your arguments prevail. Contact the small claims or provincial/territorial court nearest you for more on how to proceed. Their websites can also be of great help, with details on the procedures you’ll have to follow and downloadable forms you’ll need to complete.
Bear in mind that things can be more problematic when dealing with foreign vendors. “It gets complicated on the Internet,” says Bach. “If, for example, you buy something from a Dutch plumbing-supply company and you’re in Ontario, then Ontario rules apply to the sale; but that’s not necessarily the case in other provinces.”
Note, too, that legal action can bring uncertain outcomes, so consider what’s practical before you launch a suit. “There can be a big difference between what the law says and what’s realistic,” says Bach. “With the hardware store around the corner, you know them and can trust them. But on the Internet, you run a greater risk.
“If, for example, you find something for five dollars cheaper at one vendor in some Scandinavian country versus at another foreign vendor you used,” Bach continues, “you’re not going to sue over five dollars— that would be a very complicated process. But if a company in Spain cheats you out of $100, for example, do you sue them? Even if you win, you might have to go to Spain to enforce the judgement—so, again, it gets very complicated.”
A less labour-intensive approach to dealing with foreign online vendors can be to flag the incident with Econsumer.gov, a service run by a coalition of governmental consumer-protection agencies from more than 40 countries globally. According to the organization’s website, “you can report international scams and learn about other steps you can take to combat fraud. Your complaints help consumer-protection agencies around the world spot trends and work together to prevent international scams.” To submit your consumer issue for review, click on “File a complaint” and then use the appropriate form.
Chabeaux-Smith says resolving consumer problems is less daunting when dealing with companies in countries such as the United States, whose rules align with those in Canada. “The U.S. is more accessible because organizations there are similar to our own. But we’re not suggesting you buy or don’t buy from any particular country.”
The bottom line is that you need to do your due diligence whenever you’re shopping online, whether the vendor is in Canada or beyond. There are means at your disposal for righting most wrongs, but they can involve considerable expenditures of time and trouble—so the best approach is to play it safe from the start, especially if large amounts of money are involved.
“All the usual consumer advice applies on the Internet,” says Bach. “So if you want to be safe, deal with reputable companies that have good reviews and that ideally are located in your jurisdiction. If you exercise a modicum of prevention, you’re probably going to be okay.”