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How to make your online store legally watertight

Starting up a business is a dream that many people have. But the saying 'be your own boss' comes with responsibilities. As the owner of an online store, you have to make sure that your business and its products or services are legal and that your website meets all legal requirements. Legal certainty isn’t just obtained by choosing and implementing the correct legal status. Your website must also meet important conditions, especially when it comes to legal information such as disclaimers and data protection. Here is what you should bear in mind when creating your online store.

Disclaimer

A disclaimer is a legal notice covering the basic issues that could arise when operating a website. Many websites can use a simple disclaimer, although other business may find they need something more specialized depending on what products or services they offer. In 2004, the FTC (Federal Trade Commission) started to crack down on web businesses that didn’t have the necessarily legal information on their websites. Some were shut down and their operators faced with huge fines.

Terms and conditions

The T&Cs are the rules for using your website. This page isn’t technically a legal requirement, but it might be better to have one so you have all bases covered. Having a terms and conditions page helps protect your rights to content on your site and can reduce liability if the worst comes to worst and you’re taken to court. The court would look at the terms and conditions to see what kind of contract stands between the operator and the customer and see if the plaintiff has any ground to stand on. In order to limit your liability, you should add a disclaimer saying that you aren’t responsible for any statements made by third parties. It’s also advisable to include a copyright notice such as 'Copyright © 2016. yourwebsite.com' to protect your site and its content.

Privacy policy

A privacy policy tells website visitors what type of personal information you are collecting from them and how you plan to use it. It is therefore a legal requirement and is usually found on the T&C page. It is also advisable to specify if you don’t intend to collect any information (such as e-mail addresses and names) so visitors feel at ease and may be more likely to stay on your site. If you have a contact form on your website (e.g. for customers to subscribe to your newsletter), you should let visitors know how any information they enter will be used.

Shipping and delivery policy

This kind of policy is required so that customers know when to expect their products and how they will be delivered. It’s important that customers know the expected delivery periods and costs otherwise they may look elsewhere if they can’t find the information. Including a discount or promotion can encourage customers to buy more, for example, 'free shipping on orders over $100'.

Refunds policy

Refunds are a normal part of online business and customers will want to return or exchange their goods from time to time. They are more likely to make a purchase if they know they can send the product back if it’s not to their satisfaction. Different states have different rules concerning returns so be sure to check which one applies to you. For example, in Florida, you must make it clear if you don’t offer refunds otherwise customers may return goods for a full refund within 20 days of purchasing. In California, customers have 30 days to return what they don’t want.

A good idea is to include the refunds policy with the terms and conditions so that buyers know their rights and what to expect. You could embed a check box onto your site so that users have to agree to the terms and conditions so you know they have read them and this protects you too should any problems arise.

Double opt-in newsletter

The CAN-SPAM Act allows direct marketing messages to be sent to recipients without their permission, although this isn’t the case in some areas (i.e. Europe and Canada) where it’s forbidden to send e-mails and newsletters unless the recipient has specifically asked for them. So even though in the US, you can send commercial e-mails in the hope of winning over potential customers, you must have an opt-out or unsubscribe button so your customers can let you know they don’t want your information. Coming across as spammy can damage a company’s reputation so to play it extra safe, you should make use of the double opt-in process. The customer signs up to the newsletter, then receives an e-mail with a link that they have to click in order to activate future newsletters.

Payment methods

It’s important for internet business owners to offer a range of online payment methods so that every visitor is catered for. You could lose a potential customer if they don’t see their preferred method being offered. Take a look at your target audience to see how they normally pay. Avoid making customers create an account before they buy as this could scare them away. As well as being another password and username to remember, and prolonging the payment process, customers worry they will then be spammed by the company after entering more details, according to a study.

With all the scams and hackers around today, it’s normal to be wary of how secure a page is and be hesitant about entering sensitive information. A study found that 58% of people have abandoned their purchases at the checkout page due to payment security concerns. Obtain a Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) certificate for your website so you can provide a secure connection and encrypt card details, putting customers at ease and meaning they’re more likely to return.

Respect image right and copyright

One last important point when professionally designing a website are photos, especially the product photos. It’s important to comply with all trademark and copyrights, and only use photos that are freely available or if you have been granted permission to use them. If you don’t abide by the rules regarding online image rights, you could be hit with fines and warnings. The same rules apply to multimedia content as well.

Summary

As a store owner, it’s your responsibility to provide your customers with relevant content in a professional and transparent way. Besides this valuable content, it is also important that pages are clearly marked and always available. The topic of data protection is not only relevant for legal reasons, but is also very important for online businesses from a marketing perspective.

This article does not constitute legal advice and does not replace the advice of a competent lawyer.

E-Commerce Online Store Company Start-Up Data Protection