Courier companies have hit the ground running as online shopping takes off while malls remain an eerie reality. Finger shopping, snuggled under the duvet, has become a new norm for many South Africans, but what do we know about our rights as electronic consumers or obligations as online suppliers?

Katherine Timoney, associate at Cape-based Gillan and Veldhuizen attorney firm, points out that there are two pieces of legislation which protect consumers shopping online: the Consumer Protection Act 68 of 2008 (CPA), which governs consumer transactions, and the Electronic Communications and Transactions Act 25 of 2002 (ECTA), which covers electronic transactions for the purchase of goods. Timoney explains that “Both the CPA and ECTA have been put in place to protect consumers and to ensure that a proper process is followed by suppliers and purchasers when goods are bought, transactions are cancelled and items returned.” In the following extract, Timoney highlights important rights and obligations provided by the relevant legislation.

As a supplier

In terms of the ECTA, any supplier offering goods for sale online is obliged to make certain information available to the consumer on the website where the goods are sold. These details include;

  • information about the supplier, i.e. full names and/or company details, legal status, contact information and physical address, memberships and accreditations, etc.
  • proper description of the goods or services – sufficient to allow the consumer to make an informed decision
  • full price of the goods or services (including transport, delivery, taxes or other fees) and the manner of payment accepted
  • expected dispatch and delivery times
  • terms of the agreement with respect to guarantees, transaction records, policy of returns and refunds, dispute resolution codes, security procedures and privacy policies
  • the consumer’s rights.

The supplier must also, before the electronic agreement is finally concluded, provide the consumer with an opportunity to review the entire transaction, correct any mistakes, or withdraw from the transaction. If a supplier fails to comply with these provisions, a consumer may cancel the transaction within fourteen days of receiving the goods or services. If the consumer decides to cancel, the goods must be returned and the supplier must refund any payments made by the consumer less any direct costs incurred in returning the goods.  The ECTA also provides that a supplier must execute an order within 30 days of receiving the order, unless otherwise agreed. Failing to do so results in the right to a refund.

As a consumer

Most importantly and in accordance with the ECTA, a consumer may cancel, without reason and without penalty, any transaction and any related credit agreement for the supply of goods within seven days from the date the goods were received or, in the case of services, within seven days from the date of the conclusion of the agreement for services to be provided. The consumer is entitled to a full refund within thirty days of cancellation, but may be charged for the actual cost of returning the goods to the supplier. 

The CPA protects the consumer even further by allowing the return of any goods without penalty and at the supplier’s risk and expense within six months of delivery if the goods fail to satisfy the quality provisions stipulated in the act.

Section 55 of the CPA states that every consumer has the right to receive goods that:

•          are of good quality, in good working order and free of defects

•          will be usable and durable for a reasonable period of time (having regard to the nature of the product and what it is usually used for)

•          comply with applicable public legislation and regulations regarding manufacturing standards.

However, these protections will not apply to a consumer who has been informed that the goods were offered in a specific condition (e.g. second-  hand) and agreed to accept the goods in that condition, either expressly or by specific actions.

Important exclusions

The CPA covers most consumer transactions, but the ECTA covers electronic transactions for the purchase of goods and services generally, except for:

  • financial services
  • auctions
  • food and beverage and “goods intended for everyday consumption supplied to the home, residence or workplace of the consumer”
  • goods that cannot be returned (i.e. those that are personalised or expire rapidly)
  • reading materials (newspapers, magazines, books)
  • gaming and lottery services
  • the sale of accommodation, transport, catering or leisure services for a specific date or defined period.

Best piece of consumer advice

Timoney concludes, “Before purchasing an expensive item online, or one that you are a bit unsure about, make sure that you familiarise yourself with the supplier’s terms and conditions and refund policy so that you can make a fully informed choice when making your next purchase.”

Finding the fine print is often easier said than done.