Retailers in breach of consumer laws ‘buying their way to top Google slots’

Online retailers that breach UK consumer laws on refunds and returns are able to buy their way to prime slots on Google Shopping’s listing service, according to a Which? investigation.

The watchdog looked at the small print of electrical sellers to find unfair terms and conditions or unreasonable charges, including firms with “restocking fees” of up to £300 to return items.

Other outlets expected customers to return products in a brand new condition, while some forced buyers to pay postage costs even if the purchase was faulty, back to their operations in Hong Kong.

Although some of the companies are located outside of the UK, Which? says they remain bound by UK consumer laws because they are marketing directly to British shoppers with factors like pricing in sterling and UK web addresses.

In its investigation, it uncovered sites including eGlobalCentral UK and TobyDeals among Google Shopping’s top results when searching for gadgets such as the Samsung Galaxy Note 10, Apple iPhone 11 and Apple AirPods.

Which? claims Hong Kong-based eGlobalCentral UK’s conditions stated customers will be charged £15 if an order is cancelled after it has been processed and reserves the right to charge a restocking fee of £30-£300 if the terms of its returns policy are not met.

The site said it would only accept returns of goods “in brand new condition”, but Which? could find no return address or contact details.

Meanwhile, TobyDeals – also Hong Kong based – had a £20 administration fee if customers cancel once it has processed an order, with a warning of a £50 restocking fee for any missing accessories and a delivery charge for any faulty items returned.

The watchdog claims that both retailers allowed returns for faulty items within 14 days – short of period permitted by law, which should leave people with 14 days to cancel as well as another 14 days to return items.

It also discovered less serious breaches by UK-based Techinthebasket, who only permitted 14 days to return an item, and Wowcamera who imposed a time restriction of 14 days to return faulty goods.

Google Shopping
Google Shopping allows customers to compare prices from different retailers (PA)

Following the investigation, Toby Deals and Wowcamera agreed to update its terms to bring them in line with UK consumer law, but Which? did not receive a response from eGlobalUk and Techinthebasket.

“Our research shows how dodgy retailers can exploit a lack of oversight of ads on Google’s Shopping platform – putting consumers at risk of being ripped off,” said Adam French, Which? consumer rights expert.

“It seems wrong that firms that breach consumer laws can pay Google to secure prominent slots at the top of shopping search results.

“This is a significant gap in consumer enforcement, which reinforces why the next government must carry out a major overhaul of the system to reflect how people buy goods and services today.”

Responding to the report, Google said: “Because we want the Shopping Ads you see on Google to be useful, relevant, and safe, we have robust policies describing what we do and don’t allow on our ads platform.

“In addition, we require the merchants who use our platforms to adhere to local law. As such, we have disapproved and removed their Shopping Ads in the UK.”

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