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Online consumer protection

The Indian e-commerce industry has over recent times gained a great deal of popularity, which comes as no surprise owing to its ease of access. But along with this comes a greater need to protect the consumers fuelling the growth of this industry. As a consumer of any e-commerce site, you need to feel as protected and comfortable as you would while shopping at your favorite physical retail shops.

ONLINE CONSUMER PROTECTION

Should something go wrong with your transaction, where can you find help? Who hears your complaints? Find out here

The Indian e-commerce industry has over recent times gained a great deal of popularity, which comes as no surprise owing to its ease of access. But along with this comes a greater need to protect the consumers fuelling the growth of this industry. As a consumer of any e-commerce site, you need to feel as protected and comfortable as you would while shopping at your favorite physical retail shops.

Since the Indian e-commerce industry is still in its infancy, there’s cut throat competition amongst various online retailers, all vying for a piece of the soon-to-be-huge online consumer market. This means that as long as this massive growth phase, or at least the potential for growth, lasts, e-commerce sites would be more than willing to continue offering benefits like huge discounts, cash-on-delivery (CoD), long return periods, and free shipping, even if some of these facilities negatively affect their revenues.

 

While that is indeed good for consumers, it also means that the industry’s inexperience might lead to bad experiences, either before, during or even after the purchase. Because of a number of parties involved in a single transaction (online retailer, actual supplier, payment gateway, credit card company, bank, courier company, buyer), things can go wrong anywhere, which means that you, as a consumer, need to be prepared to tackle such issues effectively.

Below, we list out various scenarios where things can and do go wrong, and offer remedies for each situation:

What can go wrong?

The product you purchased is different from the one that was advertised

Not being able to touch the product or try it on before buying is one of the major drawbacks of online shopping. You need to wait till the product arrives to be able to see and use it.

A physical store gives you the liberty to inspect an item before you buy, whereas a product shipped from an e-commerce site might be defective and you won’t even be aware of it until you make the purchase. Another possibility is that the delivered product ends up looking totally different from what was advertised on the website.

 

In fact, there have been quite a few incidents where customers ended up with a completely different product being delivered to them, bearing absolutely no resemblance to the original product listing.

 

In such cases getting your order replaced usually results in a huge hassle. Not all consumers have the patience to convince the seller regarding the reason for replacement and wait till their calls are answered or emails responded to.

The product arrives in a damaged condition

Delivery of the product is probably the hardest area to deal with, from both the company and the customer’s point of view. There are certain companies that offer refunds for damages, if any, but some amount of caution is advised to avoid any complications. Before accepting the delivery package and signing the bill, you should examine the package carefully to note any possibility of “concealed damages.” Once the shipment bill is signed without any note of possible concealed damages, you become the legal owner of the delivered product and it becomes difficult to claim a refund if the company does not make any provisions for compensation in case of damage during the shipment.

The product does not arrive within the agreed period of time

Most e-commerce sites put up an estimated shipping time figure on product listings, indicating whether the required item is in stock, and if it is, when the product will ship. Even during the course of the delivery, they tend to keep you updated via SMSes, emails and a package tracking code. Despite all of this, if your product takes unusually long to arrive, get in touch with the company to find out what’s going on, and get an update on the shipping status. If you’re dealing with a reputed, large scale e-commerce site, the chances of you being duped are very slim. In the worst case, the site will

allow you to withdraw your order and refund your money.

In case of an online marketplace like eBay, where you deal with third party sellers, eBay acts as a middleman, not passing your payment to the seller unless you explicitly state that you’ve received your requested product.

Unreasonable replacement policies

While convincing the seller to allow the return of a product itself can be tricky, there have also been cases where the company expects the customer to handle the charges for shipping back the defective/damaged product. Sometimes, due to items of low value involved, this cost of shipping turns out to be even higher than the cost of product itself.

“Too good to be true” deals

Intense competition in the online shopping industry also means that a few sites might resort to advertising deals that are “too good to be true”, just to attract some attention. In certain cases the actual value of the product might be way lower than what’s shown in one of these deals. The product could even be defective, or worse, be a cheap knockoff. This is especially true in the case of electronics, where Chinese manufacturers copy the look and feel of a popular, branded device, and sell it with a description that might mislead you into believing that it is genuine.

How to deal

Before you place that order

Read through the policies

Make sure that that your personal or contact information is not being sold to third parties without your consent, to avoid your inbox overflowing with spam. This generally happens when you’re purchasing a massively discounted product, where the site tries to make up on lost revenue by selling your information to third parties. While signing up, make sure that you uncheck the option that signs you up for the company’s promotional emailers, unless you’re genuinely interested. Understand the company’s returns and replacement policies.

Make a careful note of how the damages during shipment of products are handled. Try to look for sites that offer longer return periods and cover the return shipping costs. Some e-commerce sites even handle the return shipping themselves, letting you stay away from the hassles of finding a courier service.

Find out their contact information before placing the order

If something goes wrong after you place the order or even during the course of shipping, you should be able to get in touch with the seller via emails or phone calls. Most sites generally have their contact number and email prominently featured on their homepage. You could also contact the seller through social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook, where their accounts tend to be highly active and responsive. Apart from these media, most sites also have live chat customer support, or an online helpdesk, where you can open issues and track their progress.

Keep a copy of the terms and conditions

Keep a soft copy or a printed version of the company’s terms and conditions (ToCs) at the time of placing the order, in case the company decides to alter them later on. You won’t need this in most cases, but it’s always better to know if the company has an absurd clause buried in its ToCs beforehand, rather than after you click the “Agree” button.

Read through user reviews

User reviews are a great source to determine not just the utility and quality of a product, but also the credibility of an e-commerce site. So be sure to go through these reviews, generally found at the bottom of a product listing, to ensure that along with the product, even your shopping experience on the site is worth every Rupee you’re about to spend.

After receiving the order

Call them!

There are many companies that offer excellent return and replacement policies. In most cases a phone call to the selling company is all that is required to secure a replacement, return or refund.

A majority of the websites have clear and customer friendly guidelines for returns. If you’re unable to find any such information from the website, you should not hesitate in calling up the company for clarifications.

 

If calling or sending emails doesn’t help you arrive at a reasonable agreement with the seller, you could even register a consumer complaint with the credit card company so that the payment can be withheld until the matter is resolved. If even then your issue isn’t resolved, you could seek legal help.

Written evidence

Get written confirmation of any agreements made over phone calls and keep a copy of the order statement. A copy of any correspondence with the seller over email should be stored safely, either in print if you’re old fashioned or on your PC, in case you need it later as proof.

File a consumer complaint

A consumer complaint can be filed only where the company in question has its branch or where the the product was delivered/scheduled to be delivered. For this reason, if the e-commerce retailer is set up in another country, pursuing a legal action becomes excessively expensive. Moreover for retailers based overseas, you might not have the same liberties as you  would in your own country.

Where can you file a consumer compaint

If you’re filing a complaint with the District Forum then it must lie in the area of the concerned seller’s branch or main office, or the area where the purchase was made. However in case of online purchases, the District Forum may decide to decline the complaint if the company’s office does not fall within the district, for that reason the user must clearly state the basis of the application And lastly, here are some tips that you should keep in mind, before making a purchase:

1. Consult your peers before ordering

2. Be wary of relatively new or unheard of sites

3. Research well before ordering

4. Opt for CoD as far as possible for new sites

5. Don’t give up, keep calling!

6. Take your frustration about a company to social networks. Online companies are very sensitive about their reputation on these networks, and you calling out the company’s ineffective functioning might speed up their response.

7. Be civil throughout your interactions with the company.

 

In case you’re extremely frustrated dealing with customer support of e-commerce sites to solve your issues, you could also try services like Akosha, which specialise in addressing consumer grievances. Akosha has in fact got a nice blog named “Consumer Tadka,” which presents many case studies in consumer problem redressals. You could also post your complaints to sites such as www.consumercourtforum.in/ or http://www.consumermate. com, which have dedicated message boards for consumer complaints.

References