Winter has arrived in South Africa and it is time to brace its chill by stocking up on your winter essentials. Increasingly consumers are preferring to shop online, however, before you click ‘checkout’ and start swiping your credit cards, are you aware of your rights as a consumer when shopping online?

The Consumer Protection Act (CPA), Electronic Communications Act (ECTA) and Protection of Personal Information Act (POPI) all contain provisions to protect your online experience so that you have similar protection as if you had physically walked into the store to make a purchase.

The Online Purchase

Online retailers must provide online shoppers with essential information on its website, including its full names, physical address, adequate description of the goods or services being sold, the price payable and the terms of the agreement of sale. Should the online retailer not do so, you have the right in terms of section 43 of ECTA to cancel the online purchase agreement within 14 days. Further, in terms of section 44 of ECTA, an online shopper has the right to cancel the online purchase within 7 days of receiving the goods or services without reason or penalty. However, the above rights to cancel the online purchases do not apply to transactions that were for financial services, online auctions, food and consumables, goods that have been made to order or personalised, or the provisions for accommodation, transport or leisure services that are entered into for a specific period of time. If an online shopper cancels the online purchase, the online retailer must refund the online shopper all payments provided the online shopper pays the costs for returning the goods to the online retailer and that the goods returned are still in the original packaging and in good condition.

Refunds and Returns
Online shoppers have the right, in terms of section 56 read with section 55, to receive goods which are of good quality and are reasonably suited for the purpose for which they are intended. Should you find that your goods purchased are defective, you have the right at your discretion to request a replacement or for the goods to be repaired or for a refund to take place within six months from the date of delivery.

Note also that section 61 of the CPA provides that the online retailer, distributor or even the manufacturer could be held liable in the event that the online shopper suffers harm as a result of the goods being unsafe, or having a product failure or being defective or hazardous.

Loyalty Programmes
Let’s be honest, many online shoppers don’t view and consider the retailer’s website details and terms and conditions before selecting the items they desire. Rather, online shoppers are lured by a retailer’s colourful website and the offer of loyalty programmes. To protect consumers and online shoppers the CPA now regulates the use of loyalty programmes with loyalty programmes now being recognised as a legal medium of exchange and thus as valuable as cash. You are not required to pay or do anything extra to receive your loyalty benefits and because it is seen as legal tender. Therefore, an online shopper who uses a loyalty programme has the same rights as consumers who purchase goods through the use of credit cards, deposits and EFTs.

Consumer Data
Protection of Consumer Data in a South African online shopping environment is currently inadequate. POPI hopes to address these inadequacies. Once POPI becomes effective, data captured on the retailer’s website, including your name, address, credit card details, contact details and even purchase history, would be regarded as Personal Information. Online retailers would need to take proactive measures to ensure that this information is protected, lawfully processed for the specific purpose, provide online shoppers with an opportunity to view and amend their details, and to not use the information in any further processing without your full consent. When POPI comes into effect, the online shopper will have the right to know and consent to how the online Retailer collects, processes and disseminates the Personal Information. Until such time, online shoppers must be vigilant and ensure they shop on approved or reputable retail websites.

The South African technological and information law is evolving and playing catch up with the rest of the world in order to meet and protect consumer needs.