THE practice of internet companies charging extra for parcel deliveries to the Highlands is being stamped out thanks to a breakthrough by the local authority.
Since starting their campaign to win a better deal for local consumers, Highland Council's trading standards officers have persuaded more than 20 internet trading companies to alter their practices to comply with the law.
Only this week, trading standards have had confirmation that Dabs.com, a major internet company that provides the platform for BT Store, has moved towards a "flat fee" delivery charge arrangement and will no longer be applying a surcharge for deliveries to the Highlands.
eBay, the internet auction site which also provides a trading platform for numerous small retailers, has also agreed to correct a flaw in its systems that miscoded many mainland postcodes as being off-shore islands, which resulted in many people being incorrectly refused delivery by some businesses.
The charges imposed by internet and other remote traders for delivery to the Highlands has been widely recognised as a cause of significant concern and the surveys carried out by trading standards, Citizens Advice Scotland, Consumer Focus Scotland and the Office of Fair Trading has provided detailed evidence of the experience of consumers.
Using this information, trading standards is currently involved in the investigation into a large number of individual businesses and is working to ensure that they will eventually all be brought into compliance with the law.
The legislation that applies requires businesses involved in distance selling and e-commerce to be absolutely clear and up-front with what delivery charges will apply to any purchase and not to make any misleading statements e.g. "Free Delivery to Mainland UK" when surcharges are made for deliveries to mainland Highland.
The significant number of other businesses identified from other surveys has resulted in a joint working agreement with trading standards in neighbouring councils to share the very significant workload.
Gordon Robb, trading standards manager with The Highland Council, said: "Our focus has been on those companies which featured most often in the survey responses or whose scale made them stand out as a priority to be tackled. Among those who have co-operated are some very large players in the marketplace. Great credit goes to a small team of highly motivated staff who have been involved in very detailed and exhaustive negotiations, which have resulted in agreements to voluntarily change the way these businesses handle delivery charges. This success will, I have no doubt, significantly affect the internet shopping experience of many consumers, both here in Highland and in other more remote communities."
Councillor Graham Phillips, chairman of the Council’s TECS Committee, said: "I applaud the work being done by trading standards on this issue and the other work they do and fully support the measured way that they are bringing these businesses into line. It has been clearly identified during their investigations that most of these businesses have not set out to mislead or rip off our consumers, but have instead been unaware of all that the law requires of them.
"It is also clear that there is still much work to do and although being made fully aware and in good time of what delivery charges will be incurred has got to be good news, removing any surcharges for delivery to our communities remains a valid goal."
Councillor Drew Hendry, leader of the council, said he has asked that trading standards officers investigate the feasibility of a "Charter Mark" type scheme that would allow consumers to identify those internet traders who do demonstrate that they will not apply surcharges for delivery to the Highlands.
Hamish Fraser, chairman of The Federation of Small Businesses’ Highlands and Islands committee, reacted to the news by saying: "I am delighted that Highland Council’s trading standards officers are making good progress in persuading national companies to treat all customers the same, irrespective of where they live. Our members have been up in arms about this matter and the FSB’s Highlands and Islands Committee has been calling for action to be taken for some considerable time.
"It is ridiculous to charge more to deliver to the Highlands & Islands than to other parts of the UK. If Amazon can provide a universal delivery service to all customers then so can other companies, and if some really can’t do so they should make the fact plain on the front page of their websites, not reveal it at the last minute when customers are paying for the goods."