Twelve of the 100 largest online shops in the Netherlands do not offer their customers the option of contacting customer service directly via the website, although this is required by law. This is the result of a survey by the NOS. The Consumers' Association says it regularly receives complaints about this from smaller webshops as well.
This can lead to great annoyance: something goes wrong with an order and then the customer service is unreachable. Since 28 May last year, it has been compulsory for online shops to provide a working telephone number and email address on their website. Companies that do not comply risk being fined.
Contact details, such as phone numbers and email addresses, must be provided in a clear and understandable way. For example, online shops will be in breach if consumers cannot easily find these details. For example, phone numbers are hidden in the terms and conditions or only provided after a chat.
For this article, NOS checked the 100 largest online shops to see if a customer service phone number was listed on the website. The Twinkle100 rankings led the way. Twelve web shops that did not have a phone number on their website were asked to comment. Four of them - Asos, VidaXL, Shein and Jack & Jones - did not respond. Four others - Amazon, Veepee, HelloFresh and Zara - did not address the content of the questions, but referred customers to other ways of contacting them by phone. HelloFresh's number, however, is easily found via Google and is provided by their chatbot. Conrad and HBM Machines say they are investigating the need for a phone number, Greetz is in the process of implementing it, and Flink added a phone number after questions from NOS.
NOS spoke to several consumers who were very frustrated by the lack of a phone number on the website. Like Laura Appelo, who ordered €850 worth of clothes from online retailer Asos. When she wanted to return some items and had a question about the return label, it proved impossible to contact her by phone.
"It took 30 days to get a reply to my email. If I had been able to call someone, I could have sorted it out quickly". As the return period had expired, she was unable to get her money back. Asos gave her a voucher for the value of the returned clothes.
The Consumers' Association regularly receives complaints about unreachable online shops, says a spokesman. "This is partly due to technological developments. Some companies are replacing their staff with chatbots, but these are often not good enough. People also want personal contact."
The difficulty of offering personal contact in a tight labour market is something that the consumer organisation itself is finding out about. "We too sometimes struggle to meet the strict response times we used to have. Now we don't always succeed. But when you have an online shop, you have certain obligations. Good accessibility is definitely one of them.
Trade association Thuiswinkel.org, on the other hand, is not happy with the new rules. "The obligation to always provide a telephone number and e-mail address feels like a step backwards," says director Marlene ten Ham.
"Of course webshops need to be easily accessible, but nowadays this can be done in other ways such as chat, Facebook Messenger or WhatsApp. Furthermore, it is of course a prerequisite that the webshop allows for fast communication, but in what way the webshop does this should be left to the entrepreneur, as far as we are concerned".
The webshops Amazon, Greetz and VidaXL have the Thuiswinkel quality mark, but do not have a telephone number on their website. Thuiswinkel.nl does not comment on individual cases, but says that companies are given time to comply with the new rules before the quality label is withdrawn.
The Consumer and Market Authority (ACM) is responsible for supervising online shops. A spokesman said that enforcement had not yet taken place. The ACM can issue a warning, threaten a penalty payment or impose a fine. A consumer can also go to court if a business fails to comply with the information requirement.
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