In the winter of 1998 researchers from Consumers International (CI) ordered 151 items from sites based in 17 different countries. Their extensive study, prepared jointly by consumer organizations in 11 countries, provides a template for a business-to-consumer E-commerce site. In response to its findings, the CI organized the online buying process into three parts: the ordering process, the delivery process, and the returns process.
The results of the Consumers International study show that both retailers and regulators have much work to do before the Internet can offer a reliable environment in which consumers can shop with confidence. Four main conclusions, three general recommendations, and multiple specific recommendations were made in response to the study's findings.
CI found that E-commerce sites failed to meet some basic retail standards. It drew these four conclusions:
- The global shopping mall is not yet a reality. The researchers found it difficult to locate sites to actually buy from. Although many retailers are online with descriptions of their merchandise and company, they often do not offer consumers the option to make purchases online.
- The quality of information available online needs to be improved. Key issues such as delivery charges and order progress and policies regarding privacy, returns, and redress are not addressed on most E-commerce sites. Many sites have little or no information on these topics, and what information there is is hard to find.
- Service is unreliable. Common experiences among the researchers in the study included goods arriving late (or not at all), credit cards being charged for goods long before their shipment, and long waits for refunds, to name a few.
- Consumers were not given information on complaints procedures. Obtaining redress in cases in which a complaints procedure was unclear or nonexistent was difficult. In addition, often the identity of the company was unclear and "real world" contact details were not provided, making the process even more difficult.
Three General Recommendations
The CI made these three general recommendations for improving E-commerce sites:
- A coordinated international approach to the formulation of guidelines governing E-commerce is needed. This would allow consumers to feel confident of receiving consistent standards of customer protection no matter where they shop.
- There should be a way of recognizing the Internet merchants who offer high standards of consumer protection. This might be accomplished by implementing a labeling scheme to indicate which merchants meet and agree to the minimum standards on a wide range of E-commerce issues. At this point, adherence to many best practices guidelines is voluntary.
- A third-party redress system should be established for online consumers who have experienced problems and exhausted all other avenues of resolution. This system would be supported by national governments and be accessible, affordable, fast, consumer-friendly, and binding to the company concerned.
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