As the saying goes: “It’s highway robbery.” Online trading might have proved itself in recent years, with more businesses and consumers opting to buy online, but fulfilment reportedly still leaves a lot to be desired, even in a relatively small, densely populated country such as the UK.
A study by consumer lobby group Citizens Advice Scotland (CAS) has underlined that many non-metropolitan areas are still struggling against high charges, late delivery or even non-delivery when it comes to online purchases. Of course, this is often due to the practices or situation of the courier or logistics company, rather than the vendor - but in the customer’s mind the seller is responsible ultimately for service levels and should retain a degree of liability as well.
According to the research, a million people in Scotland alone are being “routinely ripped off” by “unfair” delivery charges because of where they live. Susan McPhee, head of policy at CAS, says that since the organisation began to formally investigate the issue a year ago, stories have flooded in of overcharging, late delivery, poor service and sometimes a refusal to deliver to certain locations.
“This unfairness is affecting more people than is commonly realised. The campaign has had some success in persuading some companies to change their ways - most notably eBay, which has adjusted its policies as a result of being presented with this evidence. But we call on all online companies to examine their delivery policies,” says McPhee.
CAS’s conclusions are based on 3,000 complaints about 534 companies trading online in the UK.
Even worse, many delivery companies investigated demonstrated a “basic ignorance” of geography, she adds. “For example, some companies believe that Inverness is offshore, and that Aberdeen is in the Highlands,” she adds. “We passed all these complaints to Trading Standards.”
CAS’s investigation discovered that people paid 195 per cent as much or £15.23 to have items delivered to the Highlands. Offshore regions anywhere in the UK were being forced to cough up an extra £16.03 - or 243 per cent more - on average, and mixed areas excluding Scotland an additional £15.42 or 303 per cent more. Hebridean buyers were enduring a whopping 508 per cent mark-up on average for delivery.
“Of the 534 retailers whose policies we investigated, 335 of them (63 per cent) charged extra for delivery to certain parts of the UK,” says McPhee.
Some companies will deliver only to the nearest metropolitan area - forcing the recipient to travel, sometimes for hours, to make a pick-up - negating the benefit of buying online, CAS found.
According to the first CAS survey, which spoke to 900 Scots a year ago, the four that received the most complaints were eBay, Amazon Marketplace, Tesco and IT e-tailer Ebuyer.com. Channelweb contacted Ebuyer.com for comment but had not recieved a reply at press time.
Delays do cause frustration
Guy Mucklow, managing director of software specialist Postcode Anywhere, says the CAS report did not surprise him. Delivery delays were also extremely frustrating, he added.
“Delivery and transport firms try to justify this cost hike by reasoning that the calculation is based on the cost of fuel - it is more expensive to make one delivery to a rural location than to multiple in a major conurbation, which is perhaps fair enough,” Mucklow (pictured, right) says. “However, these companies often seem to be making a basic mistake in identifying locations and pricing them wrongly as a result.”
He says these problems once again highlight the importance of data quality in IT systems and the suitability of the data chosen. Geolocation services, in this instance, could be better used to calculate delivery charges and ensure the customer has true visibility of cost and service levels long before the checkout page.
“This problem certainly is not isolated to Scotland, but happens throughout the UK and potentially across the world. However, getting the basics right is a very good starting point,” Mucklow concludes.
The Office of Fair Trading (OFT) recently updated its guidelines for online sales on its Distance Selling Hub. Kyla Brand, director of OFT Scotland, says businesses are often required to supply goods within 30 days or pay a refund, and online purchasers usually have the right to cancel an order made within seven days, for a full refund. They are also entitled to a full refund if goods or services are not provided by the date agreed with a business.
“Many of the half a million people living in remote areas feel they get a raw deal on delivery We are therefore urging online businesses to use our tools to ensure these consumers receive a good level of service that meets the requirements of the law,” Brand says.
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