On 5 September, representatives of the European Commission presented the preliminary results of their REFIT exercise on the Consumer Sales and Guarantees Directive to the Internal Market and Consumer Protection (IMCO) Committee of the European Parliament. This REFIT exercise consisted of a consultation with some 23,500 consumers and 375 firms to assess how effectively the existing directive is operating. The purpose of this preliminary presentation was to allow for the data collected by the Commission to inform the work of the IMCO Committee on the current proposal for a directive on contracts for the online and other distance sales of goods. The chief question at hand was whether the scope of the proposal should be extended to cover all sales (including face-to-face sales), rather than being restricted to distance sales.
Legislation is still one of the main barriers to cross-border trade
The central purpose of the proposal is to harmonise the laws governing the distance sales of products across the EU, in order to better facilitate cross-border sales and purchases. The REFIT exercise demonstrates the potential importance of distance sales of products, in terms of the behaviour and attitudes of both consumers and retailers. According to the results, 46% of online retailers consider differences of legal rules a major barrier to operating cross borders. This figure is also in line with the Ecommerce Europe’s Cross-border E-commerce Barometer 2016. Moreover, only 17% of consumers make online cross-border purchases. Such figures highlight the need for harmonised standards in order to develop a Digital Single Market. That is why Ecommerce Europe advocates for the extension of the scope of the proposal to all B2C sales, be them concluded at distance or face-to-face.
Ecommerce Europe welcomes the fact that the results also suggested that face-to-face sales would benefit from the harmonization of rules. The results showed that 42% of offline retailers consider differences of legal rules a major barrier to operating cross borders, a figure that is comparable to the equivalent figure among online retailers. Meanwhile, the REFIT results revealed the tiny proportion of consumers, just 5%, who travel regularly to another EU country to make a purchase. The Commission representative, Veronica Manfredi, argued that legal barriers were a contributing factor to this tendency. In addition to this, for those retailers that operate in both the online and offline sectors, which account for 35% of retailers in the EU, the establishment of the same legal standards for both sectors would help to provide legal certainty. Ecommerce Europe also supports this approach because in a modern retail sector, all combinations can and will be potentially offered by a shop.
Some MEPs concerned by the legal guarantee period of two years
MEPs in general welcomed the REFIT results, but registered several issues with the approach taken by the Commission. Firstly, concerns were raised by several MEPs about the proposal to introduce a legal maximum guarantee period of two years, a key element of harmonization. For MEP Lucy Anderson (S&D, UK), the shadow rapporteur on the file for the S&D group, this did not allow for differentiation between products, and that for certain products the restriction to two years was insufficient. This was echoed by MEP Evelyne Gebhardt (S&D, Germany), who questioned it too, given that the REFIT appeared to demonstrate that the duration of guarantee periods did not have a significant financial impact on firms. These objections indicate the difficulties ahead as harmonised standards are pursued by policymakers. Ecommerce Europe still believes that full harmonization at maximum level is the one of the key element that will help foster cross-border e-commerce in Europe. Therefore, the European e-commerce association will continue to advocate for a maximum level of two years for the legal guarantee period.
MEPs ask for more consumer awareness
Several MEPs also expressed their disappointment with the fact that consumers do not seem well informed as regards to the laws that apply to them when making purchases. In the REFIT, it was found that a large proportion of consumers in countries that currently have legal maximum guarantee periods of longer than two years, such as Sweden, Finland, the UK and the Netherlands, were entirely unaware of this fact. MEPs across political groups expressed a strong desire that policy should be crafted in order to raise consumer awareness. On this issue, Ecommerce Europe believes that a simplified set of consumer rules applied across the EU as a whole would allow for individual consumers to be more aware of the laws that apply to them, and would therefore make them better able to defend their own rights. At the same time, this would allow easier compliance by online retailers.
The European Commission will present the full study by the end of September. Ecommerce Europe will continue to advocate on behalf of its members for the development of a coherent, unified framework for consumer rights across the EU.
A full report of the IMCO meeting is available for the members of Ecommerce Europe. To receive a copy, please write an e-mail to Luca Cassetti at firstname.lastname@example.org