It pays to check out online retailers before buying

On this Heritage Day holiday, many South Africans will no doubt be celebrating the fact that the long weekend has coincided rather nicely with pay day.

Wendy Knowler

Increasing numbers of consumers feel comfortable indulging in some retail therapy online rather than schlepping to the malls, and for the most part, that’s a win for both retailer and consumer.

But for the unwary online shopper, disaster awaits.

The unfortunate truth is that when dealing with an online-only retailer other than the big, established ones which value their reputations, you should only start shopping after you’ve spent some time investigating the company.

Take the online retailer Funky Tights. Its website states that the Randburg-based company was founded in 2015 and has dispatched more than 8000 orders of mostly imported tights and tops since then. Its Facebook page claims the company won the Price Check Small Online Business in 2016.

But the business started letting vast numbers of its customers down last year, blaming its late delivery on customs delays.

That got a lot worse this year, but the business continued to market its products as if there was no problem, still promising delivery within seven to 14 working days.

Only when they’d paid and not received their order, did customers get a cut-and-paste justification: “As we rely heavily on customs to clear goods in the time stipulated, we are occasionally faced with delays that are beyond our control.

“We have a shipment that has been stuck in customs and we are hoping that it gets released soon.”

Liesl Quinn of Mount Edgecombe ordered and paid R518 for a pair of leggings in June, being impressed by the fact that the site had more than 54000 likes on Facebook.

When all she got in place of those leggings was a string of excuses, she did some research on Funky Tights.

“There is a significant uproar from many people with the same issue as me,” she told In Your Corner.

“Some are still waiting for their order nine months later, and one has created a Facebook page for the victims. (Funky Tights Scammed Me, which currently has 31 members.)

Kirsti Connolly of Bryanston’s experience reflects that of many others.

“My husband ordered R600 worth of their goods in April as a birthday present for me. First they said a shipment was stuck in customs, then they offered us the choice of getting a refund or continuing to wait for the goods to arrive and be compensated with a gift. I opted to wait.

“At the end of July, they said they were sending my order. When it hadn’t arrived three weeks later, I asked again, got no reply, and then I asked for a refund. Still no reply and then I got blocked on Facebook.”

Many others have complained of their Facebook comments being deleted, followed by a blocking.

Funky Tights blamed troublesome
e-mail servers for its failure to respond to customers’ e-mails, then removed its phone numbers from its Facebook page and website.

When Vilo Naidu of Durban complained of non-delivery, she was told her package had already been given to a courier company and she was given a reference number. When it didn’t arrive, she called all the courier companies countrywide – none had a package with that reference number.

“Funky Tights said they’d get back to me on that but never did.”

Tired of waiting for her order, Tegan Ward decided to collect it from the company herself, based on the location pin and address on Funky Tights’ website.

“They proved to be useless – both were in residential areas, and there was no signage indicating an office.”

Last week, company owner Michele Smith e-mailed me in response to my post on her website, saying: “We have notified clients of various customs delays. We are making every effort to get through all refunds as fast as possible, but this has been difficult with the amount of stock we have at customs.

“We have four shipments at customs for up to 16 weeks, with two additional ones being released these last two weeks, and this has allowed us to start catching up and closing orders.

“We have no intention to steal from clients and are trying our best to resolve all issues as soon as possible.”

Smith did not respond to my follow-up e-mails, and two days later, she informed some of her customers that “we are busy changing the business over to new owners as it has been sold”.

“The new owners will be handling the refunds and outstanding orders. They will be in touch with you over the next week to finalise it.”

Unsurprisingly, nobody is holding their breath.

THE ADVICE

Before ordering and paying for goods from an online retailer, do your homework – search for the company name online, and check out complaints website HelloPeter.com. The number of likes on the company’s Facebook page is no indication of their service delivery.

Pay by credit card, that way if you don’t get the goods, you can apply for a refund from your bank via a process called chargeback. You don’t have the same protection with an EFT or debit card payment.

There is a criminal charge which covers this scenario: theft by false pretences. The SAPS is more likely to pursue the case if several victims come forward to lay a complaint. That’s made easier when victims mobilise on a Facebook or WhatsApp group.

CONTACT WENDY:

E-mail: consumer@knowler.co.za

Twitter: @wendyknowler

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