The Consumer Ombudsman wishes to remedy the scourge of online commerce: the seller cannot cancel orders based on availability issues

In recent years, online sellers have increasingly cancelled contracts on illegal grounds, for instance due to the product being out of stock or an incorrect stock balance. The Consumer Ombudsman detected shortcomings in the operating methods of many online shops and reminded online shops of consumer protection rules.

In spring 2021, the FCCA Consumer Advisory Services found that an increasing number of online shops are trying to withdraw from subscription agreements that bind them. These problems have occurred especially in online shops for electronics and household appliances. Based on consumer reports, it was noted that many online shops give an incorrect impression of their right to cancel an order, and the terms of delivery are not in all respects compliant with the Consumer Protection Act.

For this reason, the Consumer Ombudsman examined in more detail the terms of delivery of fourteen Finnish online shops in autumn 2021. The inspection found that the majority of the online shops inspected had an unlawful contractual term under which the seller may cancel an order made by the consumer, for example in a situation where the goods are sold out or the stock balance is incorrect.

“The seller must ensure that if the product is sold out, it cannot be purchased. An order placed is an agreement which is binding to both parties, and it is unreasonable for the consumers if they cannot rely on it.”


Online shops were encouraged to assume their responsibility for the order agreements made

In summer 2022, the Consumer Ombudsman sent an instruction letter to the online shops inspected, reminding them that the consumer’s order is binding to the online shop, and the shop is obliged to deliver the ordered product in the agreed manner. Online shops cannot withdraw from the agreement by sending a unilateral cancellation notification. As a rule, the contractual term under which online shops restrict their obligation to comply with the agreement is unreasonable.

In addition, a company may not provide false or misleading information in its marketing. For example, reporting an incorrect stock balance is prohibited.

Based on consumer reports, online shops may also have initially informed the consumer of a delay in the order and subsequently cancelled the delivery on the basis of issues related to availability. In case of delays, the consumer has the right to demand that the online shop deliver the order. Online shops may only refuse this in cases of force majeure. Delivery issues or insufficient stock can only be seen as force majeure in highly exceptional circumstances.

Online shops were also reminded that processing and solving consumer complaints related to orders is the responsibility and liability of the online retailer. Customer service must be easily accessible and its operation must be smooth and prompt.

“Our aim is that these unpleasant practices, which have taken root in e-commerce, only remain a momentary phenomenon and that sellers realise that compliance with the rules is also profitable for their own reputation and business.”