The basic common laws of contract formation — offer, acceptance, and so on — apply to online sales in the same way as for any other sales.
Online sales to individuals are covered by the Consumer Protection (Distance Selling) Regulations (which cover any form of distance selling, for example, sales made over the telephone). These require you to send written confirmation of any order to the customer (by mail or email) containing the necessary information (your name, description of the goods, and so on) and informing the consumer of the right to cancel the order.
The Consumer Protection (Distance Selling) Regulations do not cover sales to other businesses, however the E-Commerce Regulations 2002 govern business to business sales. These regulations require you to provide the same information, but do not include an automatic right for business customers to cancel any contracts.
If you are selling internationally, it may not be clear where the contract and transaction occur. In some countries, local laws will apply even if your terms and conditions specifically state that the contract is governed by English law. For example, consumers in other European Union countries are protected by their local consumer protection laws, and can take legal action in their local courts.
If you have a presence in a foreign country (eg an office there) transactions may also be subject to local regulation and taxation. You may also run into problems when you do not know who your customer is. For example, selling to minors may be illegal (depending on the country and what you are selling), and contracts with minors are usually unenforceable.
When selling online to individual consumers you must provide full details of the offer before they purchase, and written confirmation (which can be sent by email) of the details before or with delivery (or during the supply of any service). Broadly speaking, the required information includes your details, a description of the goods (or services), delivery and payment arrangements, and information about the right to cancel.
Although these consumer-orientated regulations do not cover sales to other businesses, the E-Commerce Regulations 2002 govern business to business sales. These regulations require you to provide the same information, but do not include an automatic right for business customers to cancel any contracts.
Individual consumers have the right to cancel purchases within a specified time - typically seven days from the delivery date (for products) or from the contract date (for services). If you fail to provide the right information, the cancellation period is extended by three months.
There are some exceptions where consumers do not have an automatic right to cancel unless you agree otherwise, for example, sales of customised or perishable goods.
Corporate customers have no special right to cancel, unless agreed in the contract.
You need the customer to agree to your terms and conditions before you accept an order (this is known as 'incorporation'). Simply hiding your terms and conditions somewhere on your website is not a good solution; instead, make sure that the customer has full notice of the terms and explicitly agrees (for example, by ticking a box to confirm that they have read and agreed to them).
In the usual way - an offer is made and accepted, and whatever has been agreed previously forms part of the contractual agreement.
Common pitfalls include:
If your website is designed so that it makes an offer to the customer and the customer accepts it, you may be contractually committed to supply at the advertised price. It has been known, for example, for companies to find themselves selling goods for £2.99 instead of £299 after a typing error. Similarly, if you agree to sell goods which you cannot supply, you may be contractually liable to the customer.
A safer solution is to ensure that your website only constitutes an 'invitation to treat' (ie an invitation for the customer to consider buying from you and to place their own 'offer'). If your website contains incorrect information, you will then have the opportunity not to accept the customer's offer to buy.
Practical and legal problems can occur if you do not know who you are dealing with, what conditions and regulations apply, and which jurisdiction will cover any legal disputes. For small purchases, payment by personal credit card provides a reasonable degree of practical protection. For larger transactions, invest a little time in researching your supplier as you would for normal non-electronic purchasing and make sure that you have clear written records of everything you agree. Transactions with foreign suppliers may need the most care as problems can be particularly difficult and expensive to resolve.
More on distance and online selling