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Beware of Traps – Shop Smartly on the Web

Beware of Traps – Shop Smartly on the Web

Throughout the year, there are a number of special online shopping events, such as “Double 11” and “Black Friday”, etc. Before getting too excited over the discounts offered by traders, consumers should read carefully the terms and conditions of services provided by these online shopping platforms, so as to avoid disappointment and wasting of money!

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In addition to the different product offerings, each online shopping platform’s role in the transaction may differ if you check closely. For example, online apparel websites such as ASOS and Zalora play the role of sourcing companies, selling items that they have sourced to their consumers. On the other hand, Amazon, Taobao, etc., act as intermediaries between buyers and sellers. Some platforms such as big big shop and HKTVmall are hybrids, i.e., acting as intermediaries between suppliers and buyers well as selling products sourced by themselves.

Why is this information important? Well, that is because the roles they play define their responsibilities! Before shopping online, consumers should find out which party to make enquiries and negotiate should there be a dispute. Take ASOA and Zalora as examples, consumers can contact the customer service teams of these shopping platforms.

Some websites require customers to contact the suppliers directly, but the means can vary. For example, Taobao customers need to contact the suppliers through Taobao’s preset channels, while for some products sold on HKTVmall, customers have to make enquiries with suppliers according to the instructions listed on the product information page. Some websites only accept enquires made to their customer service teams when buyers have difficulties in contacting the suppliers.

If the website is a small online shop rather than operated by a large and reputable online store, then consumers should be more cautious. For example, please take a look at its website, "https" and "http" are quite different! URLs start with "https" are safer links. If warnings pop up in the browser, or the webpage is only presented as "http", then DON’T disclose any personal information via this webpage.

Many websites have a "region/language" option to cater to the global consumer base. However, even if "Hong Kong" is selected as the region or the website displays the word ".hk", it does not necessarily mean that the website is operated by a local (Hong Kong) company. Consumers should read the content of the website carefully and check the specific information and reputation of the operator based on information under "About Us", "Terms and Conditions" and "Contact Method". In some previous cases, some websites marked the prices in Hong Kong dollars, but settled the transactions in other currencies, and consumers were forced to pay for the exchange rate difference. Furthermore, if it is a small overseas trader, consumers may have difficulties in following up or seeking redress should there be any dispute or issue. Consumers should therefore evaluate the risks carefully.

Some shopping platforms operate a dual delivery system, i.e., delivery by the shopping platform or directly by the supplier(s). Goods from the same order may be delivered through different ways, and the shipping charges will also be calculated separately. Consumers should pay attention at checkout to see if the goods will be sent separately by different traders, because the shipping charges of each separately sent product will be calculated separately, which may increase the total shipping costs beyond the original budget.

Some shopping platforms mainly target local customers and therefore the shipping costs will be shown even before customer entering the delivery address, thereby making it easier for consumers to make price/cost comparison. On the contrary, some overseas shopping platforms display the shipping costs only after payment information and delivery address are entered, or even after completion of the purchase process.

At the same time, the shopping process of some platforms can be quite unusual as the system will not provide the shipping costs at the time of purchase, and after 1 or 2 days, the buyer will receive a confirmation email from the supplier specifying the shipping method and costs. Buyers will need to reply to confirm such arrangement before supplier dispatch the goods. In this case, consumers should pay attention and check their emails to avoid cancellation of the order.

Many online shopping websites use promotional discounts, such as "half price for new members!", etc. to attract customers to become members in order to establish long-term customer relationship. However, many consumers may not know that certain conditions may be attached to the membership, such as monthly fee. They will only find out when their credit cards are automatically charged with the information they provided to the website.  So before registering as members, consumers should read the terms and conditions carefully.

Most shopping platforms will send an email to confirm the order after a customer has made the payment. Consumers should pay attention to verify the product information listed in such emails. Some shopping platform may cancel orders for various reasons! Previously, there were cases where some platforms cancelled transactions due to lack of stock or for no reason at all. If a consumer purchase multiple items in one go in order to save shipping costs, then he or she may end up not saving at all.

Some mainland online shopping platforms may list out goods that are prohibited for export. However, this may not be the complete list, so consumers who have purchased prohibited goods may have their transactions cancelled by the shopping platforms. Therefore, consumers should log in to the platforms from time to time to check the delivery status of their purchased goods.

Consumers should also be aware that individual courier company may impose delivery restrictions on certain goods, such as health foods and supplements, seaweed, dried fruits, canned foods, hair dye, aromatherapy products, nail polish, leather, infant formulas, etc.

After all, consumers make online purchase decisions relying mainly on the photos and descriptions provided by the traders. When they see the real goods, they may not like and want to return them. However, some platforms will state in the terms and conditions that they will only accept returns due to damages or inconsistencies in product descriptions. And consumers will need to bear the shipping costs if they choose to return the goods without any valid reason.

In particular, the mainland has stricter controls on the delivery of goods. If consumers purchase certain regulated goods through mainland online shopping platforms, even if the sellers agree to the return requests, they may still unable to return the goods due to delivery / shipment controls. Therefore, consumers should evaluate the risks carefully before any purchase.

Some platforms may have very convenient procedures to return goods. Consumers simply need to log in their accounts, press a few buttons, and then take the goods to the convenience stores and the process is completed. However, there are also platforms that do not specify the return policies and application procedures, and do not provide any instructions or links. If you don’t take a screenshot of the product information page when purchasing the product, you may miss the only information for return purpose. Therefore, it is best to keep transaction records when doing online shopping, and contact customer service team as soon as possible to ask about the return procedure.

If you only need to press a button on the website, and go to a convenience store to hand over the return goods, it is of course convenient. However, the return procedures of some online shopping platforms are more complicated. First of all, consumers can only apply for return by sending emails to the platforms or retailers, and then follow the instructions in the reply emails to complete the process. Sometimes, the customer service personnel may fail to respond in time prior to the deadline, causing delay in the return process.

At the same time, the need to arrange courier service is also a headache for many consumers, such as choosing the right courier company to use. When filling in customs clearance information, there is a chance that the goods cannot be sent due to the lack of recipient's business registration information. If you need to send back the goods at your own expense, sometimes the shipping costs could be similar to the price of the goods, making it pointless to go through the whole return process, and you will also bear the risk of loss or damage to the goods during the delivery process. These are all aspects that consumers need to consider in advance.

Everyone knows that most online shopping platforms have a return period. Some platforms set the deadline on the 7th day from the receipt of the goods. The refund button in the account will disappear after this date! Therefore, consumers must inspect the goods as soon as possible after receipt, and start the return process if there is any problem with the goods.

How do shopping platforms return customers’ money after successfully processing their requests? Most consumers tend to prefer the money to be returned via the original payment route.  However, some platforms will provide two options: 1) via the original payment route; or 2) to the customer’s account with the platform. 1 shopping platform even stated in its policy that refund could only be made to customers’ accounts with the platform if they apply for return after certain period.

In addition, consumers must also remember to check the refund amount. The Consumer Council (or the “Council”) had previously conducted a survey and found that some platforms did not refund the full amount to the customers.

The Council purchased a variety of popular goods via 9 online shopping platforms that are familiar to Hong Kong people. After receiving the goods, the Council requested refunds on certain transactions, so as to better understand the delivery process and policies and procedures with respect to the return of goods, as well as the quality of their customer service. If you want to learn more about this survey, please refer to the article, “Pay Heed to Online Shopping Return Policy Survey Revealed 3 Major Issues”, CHOICE Magazine, Issue 516 (Chinese version only).

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