News item

A Wise Old Bird Flies To The Rescue Of Online Christmas Shoppers

'Howard' the owl is ready to swoop in to help online Christmas shoppers to buy goods from the continent more easily and safely.

The UK European Consumer Centre (UK ECC), which is hosted by the Trading Standards Institute (TSI), has launched the wise old bird as an 'online shopping assistant' so that consumers can check out internet sites before deciding whether to buy from them.

A third of consumers now shop online, compared with 27% in 2006 and it is now the most common channel for overseas sales.

But in some cases the goods are faulty, broken or just do not arrive - and the disappointed customers often do not know how to gain recompense from sellers based abroad.

UK ECC's advice to guide people buying over the internet from Europe comes during TSI's National Consumer Week, launched on Monday 17 November at the Office of Fair Trading in Salisbury Square, London, for which the theme is 'Be a Savvy Shopper this Christmas'.

'Shopping online can be the easiest and most comfortable option, offering great choice and, very frequently, great value,' said Elisabetta Sciallis, UK ECC executive.

'Confidence and trust play a crucial role for consumers when it comes to shopping online and EU legislation aims to help people to become more confident when buying goods from other countries within the EU.

'However, not all online purchases go as smoothly as expected and the UK ECC is frequently contacted by consumers who have had bad experiences due to fraudulent websites and care is needed.'

Howard, the animated owl character available at, allows consumers to input the name of any website and review information about it before making an online purchase.

By entering the name of a website, the country of the seller or the company registration number, Howard gives useful information, including:

* When the website was registered. If it has been registered very recently, particular care is needed, especially if prices seem extremely attractive and pre-payment is required.
* The results of an internet search engine. If the results show negative comments from other consumers, there is good reason to be cautious.
* Contact details for the advice team at the UK ECC.

Howard also provides general advice and information about shopping online and consumer law - for instance, that customers have seven days to return goods bought over the internet.

Although he cannot guarantee that a website is trustworthy or offer a guarantee of service or quality, Howard can help people to make better choices and provide them with knowledge of consumer related law.

James Roper, chief executive of e-retail industry body IMRG (Interactive Media in Retail Group), said: 'Howard is absolutely brilliant! Cross-border shopping - or XB as we know it - offers consumers exciting new possibilities to obtain goods from around the world. But all too often the experience can be accompanied by a nasty surprise: an unexpected tax bill, the wrong size, incompatible plugs or incomprehensible instructions.

'The UK ECC in general, and Howard in particular, are terrific innovations that enable consumers to shop abroad with far more confidence and retailers to reach European markets more easily.

'IMRG shares EC Consumer Affairs Commissioner Meglena Kuneva's vision of making shopping online from any EU country as natural as that of shopping in your own country - so XB becomes just another postcode. With Howard's watchful eyes on the lookout, that dream takes wing.'

UK ECC's top tips to avoid some of the common Internet shopping pitfalls include:

* Watch out for websites where businesses do not provide clear information on who the vendor is and how to contact them.
* You have a minimum of seven working days to cancel a purchase and the vendor should provide information on these cancellation rights.
* A retailer cannot avoid giving a refund on faulty goods by blaming the manufacturer. When you buy online your contract is with the seller and not the manufacturer.
* If you pay by credit card for an item which cost between £100 and £30,000, the credit card company is jointly liable alongside the retailer for any breach of contract by the retailer, such as the item is faulty or broken. If you cannot gain redress from the retailer, you can contact your credit card company whose card you used to buy the item.

For more online purchase tips, look at the UK ECC website, FAQs page under 'A Merry Christmas or a Sorry Christmas'.

The UK ECC also gives advice on what shoppers can do if they find they have bought a faulty product from a Christmas trade fair, where the traders may be based in the UK only temporarily.

'Continental Christmas markets have become very popular in the UK and are an enjoyable experience for shoppers,' said Ms Sciallis.

'If you buy something from a Christmas fair and the trader is based overseas, your purchases are protected by the EC's Consumer Goods and Associated Guarantees Directive - and we can help if you need advice about this.'

Ron Gainsford, chief executive of TSI said, 'In these tight financial times it is imperative that consumers are given the confidence to continue shopping. The UK ECC advice team here at the Institute has a range of suggestions and assistance to help prevent problems occurring and to help with redress should disputes arise.'

The UK ECC can be contacted on 08456 04 05 03 or at and information on consumer rights when shopping across Europe is available at

Notes to Editor:


The Trading Standards Institute (TSI) has been running the UK ECC since August 2007. The centre was officially launched on 14 November 2007 at the TSI headquarters in Basildon by the Minister of State (Trade, Investment and Consumer Affairs) Gareth Thomas MP. The UK ECC is a small team of officers who provide free and confidential information and advice to consumers when shopping abroad. It works as part of a network of 29 Centres across Europe to also resolve problems that European consumers have had with UK traders.

The UK ECC is funded by the European Commission and the UK Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform. Its aim is to create consumer confidence by providing consumers with information on their rights under European legislation and giving advice and assistance in the resolution of cross-border disputes.

National Consumer Week

This is the 21st annual National Consumer Week organised by the Trading Standards Institute and for the fourth year in association with Consumer Direct, the government-funded consumer advice telephone and online service.

National Consumer Week is a platform to raise awareness about specific consumer issues and particularly to highlight new developments in an increasingly complex and competitive marketplace. It profiles the work of and is supported by local authority trading standards services across the UK.

Trading Standards Institute

The Trading Standards Institute has represented the interests of Trading Standards professionals for 120 years. We have a long and proud history of ensuring that the views of our members are well represented at the highest level of government, both nationally and internationally.

Our aim is to promote excellence and enhance the professionalism of our members in support of empowering and informing consumers, encouraging and working with honest businesses, targeting rogue traders and rogue trading practices and contributing to the health, welfare and wellbeing of citizens and communities.

TSI members are engaged in delivering frontline trading standards services in local authorities in response to 2 million consumer and business complaints and enquiries each year. They also support the delivery of new initiatives such as Consumer Direct, providing first point of contact practical consumer advice.

They also work in the business, consumer and central government sectors in promoting and influencing the safety, prosperity and enhancement of individuals and markets with a dependency on effective and professional trading standards contributions and interventions.

Consumer Direct - 08454 04 05 06

Consumer Direct is a Government-funded telephone and online consumer advice service which works in partnership with Local Authority Trading Standards. It provides clear, practical and impartial advice and information to help consumers resolve problems and disagreements with suppliers of goods and services. Consumer Direct is available from 8am to 6.30pm Monday to Friday, and 9am to 1pm Saturday (excluding bank and public holidays).

Calls cost a maximum of 4 pence per minute from a BT landline. Charges from other networks or mobiles may vary. Your service provider may charge a minimum cost per call. The advice and information given is free. Useful information is also available on the website