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Last week’s Black Friday and Monday’s Cyber Monday signalled the beginning of the festive season shopping frenzy. And with that, inevitable dissatisfaction about goods that never arrived, didn’t look like the advertisement and fell apart virtually the moment you took delivery.

For Nick Naiker, who bought a bicycle and gas cylinder online the day before Black Friday, it should have been a routine transaction. He found what he wanted online, added the goods to his “basket” and paid.

Three days later, he received a message that “Click, Click, Hooray!” - his order was on its way and that he should expect it the following day.

Hours later, he received a call from the retailer, saying no can do - it couldn’t fulfil his order so he’d be refunded.

“I was upset and asked to speak to a manager,” Naiker said.

“I instructed her not to refund me. She said she would get a manager to call me.”

Surprise - no call.

He called them, only to be told there wasn’t stock. “How can they list the items online but when the customer purchases them, he’s told no stock? Aren’t they obliged to fulfil my order?”

Not necessarily. Many retailers follow an in-store fulfilment model, meaning their online shops share stock with their brick-and-mortar stores. The Electronic Communications and Transactions Act (ECT Act), which applies to online transactions, says the supplier must execute the order within 30 days, unless the parties have agreed otherwise. If the supplier fails to execute the order within 30 days (or within the agreed period), the consumer may cancel the agreement with seven days’ written notice.

If a supplier is unable to perform in terms of the agreement because the goods or services ordered are unavailable, the supplier must immediately notify the consumer of this and refund any payments within 30 days.

Sylvia Papadopoulos, a senior lecturer in the University of Pretoria’s Mercantile Department, says online suppliers should “at the moment of processing the transaction, when consumers click on yes/pay/I agree/process, ensure that the system returns a result that the transaction cannot be processed because the item is not in stock”.

She says the idea is to simulate a bricks-and-mortar shopping environment as closely as possible, “in other words, if you walk into a shop and the item is not on the shelf, you cannot buy it”.

However, Papadopoulos notes that with online systems, it’s not always possible to give real-time stock levels of an item. Where suppliers are aware there might be supply issues, with, for example, Black Friday specials, it could be viewed as misleading conduct if they have not warned that stocks are limited.

The Consumer Protection Act (CPA) is clear on “bait marketing”: a supplier may not advertise any goods or services as being available at a specified price in a manner that may result in consumers being misled or deceived in anyway about the actual availability of the goods or services at the advertised price, Papadopoulos says.

“It is possible for suppliers to set a limit on the availability of those goods or services. If the advertising is misleading or deceptive, the consumer would have all the CPA remedies available. Under both acts a complaint can be lodged at the National Consumer Commission.”

Getting to those terms and conditions: customers are expected to read and agree to the retailer’s Ts & Cs when signing up.

Papadopoulos says the shopping-cart method (which requires customers to review contents and click on “agree” to Ts & Cs) is a universally accepted method for concluding contracts online, known as clickwrap.

“It would not be possible for any online retailer to sell anything if potential customers had to first go through a home page where the full terms and conditions of the contract that could possibly be concluded later, appear. “Of course, the Ts & Cs need to comply with the CPA requirements, such as being written in plain and understandable language, and not being unfair and excessively one-sided.”

Some retailers, especially grocers, email confirmation of the products you’ve ordered (but not yet bought), with the price and delivery details. Payment is then reserved but no money taken. The order and payment are finalised once the order has been packed for delivery close to your chosen date. If the order isn’t fulfilled, your card will not be debited and the reserve amount will be released by your bank. Non-grocery retailers take payment upfront, whether there is stock available or not.

Tips on ordering online

Before you order from an online retailer, make sure they’re credible, well-established and trusted. Search for their name online, see if there are complaints and be suspicious of “likes” on social media.

Rather pay by credit card because if you don’t receive your goods, you can apply for a chargeback on your Visa or MasterCard. If you’re paying by EFT or debit card, you’re up the proverbial creek.

Only shop securely, demonstrated by the “https” prefix in a retailer’s website and a padlock symbol in the browser. Avoid payments made off the merchant site - never complete any payment for a purchase that directs you away from the merchant site.

Don’t assume online payment gateways offer buyer protection or hold your funds in escrow, meaning that they keep your money in safekeeping pending the completion of a contract or transaction.

Remember, the ECTA gives you the right to cancel any electronic transaction for the supply of goods within seven days from the date of receipt of the goods and to obtain a full refund within 30 days of the date of cancellation, with no penalty. You don’t need to give a reason either.

If your purchase is defective in some way, you have the right - at your discretion - to request a replacement, a repair or for a refund within six months from the date of delivery.

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