International consumers? Know their rights!

10 April 2018

Charlotte Meindersma
Jurist | Charlotte's Law

Your online store is doing well. It's actually so successful that international consumers have discovered it too, so you've decided to start selling and sending parcels across the national border. No problem, right? Well, once you start selling your products across the national borders, your sales are subject to the local consumer rights. Say what? Don't panic… Let's have a closer look at this.

Let’s cut to the chase: when you actively offer your products in another country, your consumers are protected in their country of residence. So when it comes to consumer rights, it doesn’t matter where your online store is based, but rather where the consumer lives. So if you sell your products to German consumers, you need to respect the German consumer rights. On top of that, there are other rules you need to comply with, such as privacy laws and cookie regulations.

But what if you don’t actively offer your products in another country but international consumers find your store? A one-off sale is not subject to the laws in the consumer’s country of residence. To find out which laws and regulations are applicable when you often sell your products abroad, it’s important for you to determine your exact target group.

The main question to determine which laws and regulations apply is: who does your online store target? We mainly know which elements are not direct indications of the target group, such as the domain-name extension. The same goes for the email address, the registered address and the phone number (without international country code). Likewise, the language and currency are not an indication when they are simply linked to the member state the online store is based in. In a nutshell, an online store in Dutch does not automatically target Flanders, where Dutch is spoken.

So which elements do give an idea of the online store’s target group? ​

Ads and other forms of advertising do give a good indication of the target group, because they are considered an investment. Moreover, ads are usually drawn up in the language of the country the online store targets. This includes all types of ads, such as radio and TV ads, of course, which are only broadcast in the country where customers are sought, but also Facebook ads which are displayed in a different EU country.

If you explicitly list international shipping costs in your online store, you clearly indicate that your store targets an international audience. If not, why would you, as a Dutch online merchant for example, tell potential customers how much it would cost to send a parcel to Germany or Belgium, for example?

There are some other clues that can indicate your intention to sell your products abroad. Needless to say, there’s no need to include all of them and of course, this is not an exhaustive list. However, the more of these little clues you feature in your online store, the easier it is for potential customers to assume it also targets an international audience.

A few examples:

  • A phone number with an international country code.
  • A more general delivery domain extension, namely .com, rather than .de or .be for example
  • Reviews by international customers
  • Different languages

The website Canadian Chairs sells products in different countries. Above you see the French version of their website www.canadianchairs.fr.

Simply put, the answer depends on the country your online store targets. Once you have determined that, you can get an insight into the applicable law and the courts your store falls under. Consumers can only fall back on the consumer legislation of their country if the online store is willing to comply with the local laws and regulations. To objectively determine whether that’s the case, consumers need to check whether the online store in question is targeting their specific country. If so, the online store must comply with the laws and regulations of the consumers’ country of residence.

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