By Angelos Anastasiou
CONSUMER RIGHTS in the EU will receive a much needed boost next Friday when the directive on consumer rights comes into full effect across the union.
The directive primarily affects shoppers making online purchases. It does not cover purchases consumers make in shops or business outlets, but it will include direct selling such as one-on-one product presentations to potential customers at their home or at their work.
Consumer expenditure accounts for 56 per cent of EU GDP, which translates into enormous potential for European consumers to drive economic growth. But despite a staggering €352 billion in e-commerce across the EU in 2013 – a figure projected to rise to €578 billion by 2018 – a mere 11 per cent of online consumers shop across borders, and only 25 per cent of retailers sell across borders.
According to research presented by Walter Devenuto, head of the European Multi-Channel and Online Trade Association, returns policies and the risk of no delivery rank amongst the most important reasons consumers cite for avoiding e-commerce, while differing consumer laws across jurisdictions were the single most important reason cited by traders.
But while the new directive aims to address such concerns, Viviane Reding, vice-president of the European Commission and the EU’s Justice Commissioner, warned that strengthening consumer rights EU-wide, introducing common rules and empowering consumers to make better-informed shopping decisions will count for very little if consumers and vendors remain unaware. In Cyprus, only nine per cent of consumers state they are confident in knowing their rights as consumers in general, while 44 per cent said they believed they don’t have the right to return goods four days after purchase.
“These rights are only useful if people – both consumers and businesses – are aware of them,” Reding said. “This is why we have decided to launch the Consumer Rights campaign.”
The campaign was officially kicked off in Cyprus on May 28. It is scheduled to last for four weeks and aims to educate the public at large malls and commercial streets, as well as social networks.
Consumer Commissioner Neven Mimica explained the importance of cross-border trade, describing it as a “win-win situation”.
Cyprus harmonised itself with the directive fully in November 2013.
The comprehensive directive homogenises differing consumer protection rules across EU member states, which have thus far incurred additional costs to traders and lowered consumer confidence. Further, it expands the consumer’s right of withdrawal – that is, returning a product or refusing a service previously agreed to – from 7 to 14 calendar days after the product was received, with full reimbursement including costs of delivery.
“If the seller wants you to pay the cost of the return, they should make this clear before you purchased the item – otherwise you don’t need to pay,” Mimica said. “For bulky items that normally cannot be sent by post, they should give you an estimation of the cost of return in advance.”
The directive also bans pre-ticked boxes on websites, and simplifies the process of reimbursement for cancelled transactions through a ‘model withdrawal form.’
“Consumers can be more confident when making purchases, including online purchases, anywhere in the EU,” Reding explained. “Being able to shop around means consumers will have access to a wider choice of products at more competitive prices.”
“The new rules also forbid surcharges for the use of credit cards – from now on traders will only be allowed to charge what it actually costs them. The directive also outlaws any hidden charges and ‘cost traps’. With this directive, we are making sure consumers are not ripped-off when shopping online.”
Boosting consumer confidence is a noble pursuit, but what can you do if a trader refuses to comply with the directive’s clauses?
“When it comes to problems with products or services purchased from another EU country, you can seek assistance through a European Consumer Centre [ECC],” said Mimica. “The ECC-Network covers all EU Member States, Norway and Iceland and offers free consumer advice and support when buying goods or services from a trader based in another country covered by the network.”
The Cyprus ECC was founded in 2005 and is co-funded by the European Union and Cyprus. Its mandate is to handle consumer complaints relating to international trade within the EU, advise consumers on their rights and courses of action available to them, and to liaise with any ECCs in other countries in order to help consumers resolve the issue.
In 2013, the Cyprus ECC dealt with 152 complaints, 97 of which were submitted by locals and 55 by other EU nationals.
Giorgos Markopouliotis, the head of European Commission representation in Cyprus, described the EU consumer protection policies one of the Union’s “success stories”, and stressed its focus on ensuring that the 500 million of European consumers enjoy a high level of safety while their rights are respected.
“It’s important that consumers are aware of their rights,” he said. “If only nine per cent of consumers know what their rights are, then only nine per cent will practise them.”
European Consumer Centre Cyprus http://www.ecccyprus.org/index.php/el/