UK: The Online Ts And Cs That Might Just Save Your Bacon (And Business)

Last Updated: 23 February 2015
Article by Valerie Surgenor and David Flint

The process of placing an online order or booking can often seem like a fairly simple one. The seamless journey can be summarised in three key stages;

Stage 1 - You find the product you are looking for, add it to your electronic 'basket', go to an imaginary 'checkout', fill out your personal details, pay, and viola – the 1 Terra-byte SSD you don't really need but was such a good deal it would have been rude not to is yours. Easy. (Worryingly so if you are a sucker for a spontaneous online shopping spree.)

Stage 2 - A sudden feeling of guilt comes over you. You forget why you went onto the computer in the first place. You try to work out what you will do with another hard drive.

Stage 3 - Oooh, is that a good deal on walking boots?

And repeat.

The world of online shopping and its inherently tantalising temptation, where in the blink of an eye you can buy almost anything you can imagine, has us all hoarding our own personal collections of things we didn't realise we needed until it was [insert conscience appeasing or opportunity for crowd pleasing triumphant explanation discount here].

With everything at your fingertips in such a manner, a new form of restraint is required. One we were never introduced to as children - only warned of via mysterious 'child in a sweet shop' analogies we couldn't grasp for salivating at the confectionary in our local supermarket.

The rather streamlined, slick process that now includes Amazon 1-click ordering and other sophisticated instant purchase technology, and that underpins our online 'oniomania' (True story - 'an obsession with shopping and buying behaviour that causes adverse consequences') is now a feature of the online shopping experience almost everywhere you go. Once upon a time the preserve of tech trailblazers, now your Granny can, and probably does, buy her groceries online.

Whilst the technology propping up our online activity is certainly of an advanced nature, it still has its occasional issues. These usually arise in the form of price glitches that elicit a frenzied, rather unbecoming scramble amongst consumers to take advantage of the latest far too good to be true bargain.

The most recent high profile example of such was United Airlines' (UA) Danish debacle last week. An online vendor in the Scandinavian country, courtesy of a faulty exchange rate, offered customers flights across the Atlantic - from Heathrow to Newark - for the princely sum of just $76. Thousands swooped. The airline wasn't having any of it. Cue the bringing of prospective passengers firmly back down to earth;

'You purchased a ticket through the Danish version of during the time when the prices were incorrect. As a result, we are not able to honour your ticket at the price that you paid. We have voided your reservation and will not process your payment. If you would like to book your travel at the correct price, please visit'

Wait a minute. You make a mistake, you deal with the consequences - don't you? Wasn't that a childhood lesson we all did grasp...after painful protestation? If only coming of age had terms and conditions...

Yes, online 'Ts and Cs'. The bit you don't read but should. It governs the relationship between the consumer and e-tailer, and probably contains a few surprises for all but the most savvy of shoppers. Structured to protect a business from the consequences of potential pricing errors, they contain nuances that might postpone the formation of a contract well past the payment stage.

Online retailers will have a comprehensive and clear (if you pause to peruse them) set of terms upon completing your order that will usually indicate that by completing and submitting an order, the consumer is simply 'making an offer' to purchase, that 'if accepted' by the retailer, will result in a binding contract. Even carefully worded confirmation emails do not usually mean a contract has been completed. If, before dispatching the goods – or indicating acceptance – the retailer discovers an error such as that UA found in Denmark, they can legally refuse to fulfil the order. Aforementioned bacon saved.

So as the opportunist transatlantic travellers come to terms with a chance missed, and UA take shelter behind their online Ts & Cs, the message for online retailers is clear. Mistakes do happen. Make sure your online terms and conditions are set up to ensure the consequences don't fly out of control.

© MacRoberts 2015


The material contained in this article is of the nature of general comment only and does not give advice on any particular matter. Recipients should not act on the basis of the information in this e-update without taking appropriate professional advice upon their own particular circumstances.

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