The investigation found that 55% of the 369 monitored websites presented irregularities. "This is a Europe-wide problem which needs a European solution. There is a lot of work to be done in the months ahead to clean up this sector. Europe's consumers deserve better," said EU Consumers Commissioner Meglena Kuneva.
The most common irregularity concerns the provision of wrong information about consumer rights when buying goods online. Under EU rules, for example, a product purchased online can be returned by the purchaser at least a week later without giving a reason. But many websites were not stating this clearly, or in some cases were explicitly saying they would not accept returns.
Moreover, consumers are often misled regarding the actual prices of the products they purchase. Some equipment is sold as "all inclusive" with the promise of free delivery, but buyers found final prices higher at the moment of delivery. Many websites also did not report complete contact details of the sellers, making it impossible for consumers to file complaints.
Brussels decided to carry out an enquiry into the sector following consumer dissatisfaction. More than a third of all complaints regarding online sales handled by European authorities in 2007 were about electronic equipment, according to figures provided by the Commission.
The sector also represents a big part of e-commerce activities in the EU. 25% of consumers who have ever bought something online bought electronic goods. The market for online electronic equipment was worth around €6.8 billion in 2007, according to the EU executive.
The investigation focused on websites selling cameras, mobile phones, DVD players, games consoles, music players and computer equipment, which are among the most common electronic goods for sale on the Web. The survey was carried out in May.
The Commission threatens fines or suspension of the irregular websites, but sanctions are not likely to be imposed soon and in any case will follow warnings from national authorities.
The survey also highlighted the relatively low importance of online cross-border sales, since only 13% of the irregular websites spotted by the EU executive had a transnational dimension. The biggest majority sold within national borders. This confirms figures in previous EU surveys, which signalled that only 7% of EU consumers shop online across borders, and just 21% of online retailers sell cross-border.
Consumer groups welcomed the crackdown on misleading advertising by online retailers and called for further work to assess the marketplace. Falk Leuke, European Co-Chair of the Transatlantic Consumer Dialogue (TACD) said consumers who buy online deserve the same protections as other customers.
"It's hard for consumers to have faith in online commerce, and cross-border transactions in particular, if vendors fail to fulfill their most basic duties as regards the provision of compulsory information," Leuke said.