FTC Repeats Holiday Warning to E-Tailers

The Federal Trade Commission is warning online retailers once again that, among other things, they had better keep their shipping promises during the holiday season.

The FTC said Nov. 29 that it sent letters to 51 unnamed sites reminding them they must abide by their so-called quick ship claims. The 51 were among 63 Web sites offering top-selling items that the commission surfed as part of “HolidaySmarts2.com.”

Letters to the sites' operators said, “We want to make certain that you know that online sales are governed by many of the FTC-enforced statutes and regulations that apply to other forms of marketing and advertising.”

The commission took similar action last year, claiming it surfed 110 sites offering top-selling holiday items and that it sent letters to 50 of them.

In the 1999 holiday season, many top online retailers failed to ship merchandise in a timely fashion or to notify consumers of delays. The FTC levied fines totaling more than $1.5 million against seven “well-known e-tailers for allegedly violating the Mail or Telephone Order Rule,” a statement from the agency said.

The rule says that sellers ship orders to buyers within the time stated in the ad or, if no time is stated, within 30 days. If the seller cannot ship within those guidelines, it must notify the customer of the delay within the original shipping time and give a revised shipping date.

Sites that promise to ship within 48 hours but find they cannot must notify customers within that period and give them the option to cancel, the FTC said.

After a rocky 1999, e-commerce companies improved their shipping results in the 2000 and 2001 seasons, the commission said. However, “As consumers turn to the Internet to shop for holiday purchases, we want to be sure they get what they expect, when they expect it,” Howard Beales, director of the FTC's bureau of consumer protection, said in a statement.

The agency also said that this year's surf found that 14 of 23 sites selling warranted merchandise failed to provide adequate warranty information.

The FTC's Pre-Sale Availability rule requires e-commerce companies to adequately disclose the terms of warranties on all warranted goods over $15. To comply, an online seller must include on its Web site either the full text of all written warranties or a general statement that they can be obtained free upon written request and an address where the warranty can be acquired. Warranty information must be near the product description or be located clearly and conspicuously in a separate information section on the Web site. It is insufficient for sites only to summarize the terms of a manufacturer's warranty.

The commission also said that it advised two sites selling apparel to make FTC-required country-of-origin disclosures, under which most textile products sold to consumers through print or online catalogs disclose in the product information whether each item was “Made in USA,” “imported” or both.

The FTC said it also sent letters to 19 sites concerning rebate claims made on the sites. Letters advised that they should disclose:

· Whether the rebate is mail-in or in-store.

· The material terms of the rebate offer.

· The total price consumers must pay at the time of purchase to receive the rebate.

The FTC warned that the disclosures should be clear, prominent and near the rebate offer. It also advised the companies that the rebates should be sent within the time promised or within 30 days if no time is mentioned.

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