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Pivoting to an online business (all the legal things you need to know)

Helen Turnbull, Head of Content and Lawyer, Sparqa Legal

With the lockdown set to continue for some months for lots of UK businesses, getting your business online is a great move. You can’t just slap together a website and start selling though - the legal obligations of a business setting up in ecommerce are important. Getting it right from the start can help you avoid headaches down the road, and Sparqa Legal can help.

Not all of your legal obligations are obvious – Joe Wicks (aka The Body Coach) got in trouble at the start of lockdown for using copyrighted music in his workouts for the nation. You might not be able to beat Joe’s online traffic, but you can certainly do better when it comes to taking care of your legal obligations.

Steps to help you make sure your online business is legally compliant

Step 1: Make the most of your website build

If you have the budget, you could pay for a website designer to make something bespoke. For most, though, the DIY approach is good enough to start with and will still leave you with a professional-looking site. There are lots of online website builders that you can use. To get the best out of your site from day one:

  1.      Take care picking your domain name. Choose something similar to your business’s name. Shorter is better, to minimise the risk of your site losing traffic to typos. If you can, register any obvious spelling variations for the same reason, and make sure to get all the extensions that you might need (eg .co.uk, .com, .org)
  2.      Make sure it works on mobile phone
  3.      Check it is secure (it has https at the start of the address)
  4.      Look at payment security for your customers - you need two factor authentication
  5.      Think about ecommerce features that you might need – does your chosen website builder allow you to customise shipping costs or give your customers promotional discounts?

Step 2: Make your branding and content unique

It’s great to stand out from the crowd anyway, but you should be particularly careful to make sure your business complies with its legal obligations around other people’s trademarks and copyright.

Pictures, writing and music are all usually protected by copyright. This means you need the copyright owner’s permission if you want to use their work on your website. If you don’t get permission, they could demand that you take their work down and pay them compensation for the unauthorised use.

Similarly, be careful with your branding and site design – if you copy a recognisable brand, you may be infringing their trade marks. Lots of household names employ people to find and shut down websites that are too similar to their branding.

Step 3: Get proper policies and T&Cs

This is essential to your business’s legal obligations. Legally, you must include lots of specific information on your website. To make sure your business is legally compliant, make sure you have:

  1.      Website terms of use – these are the house rules for people visiting your site, helping to limit your liability for any problems and protect your own copyright or other intellectual property.
  2.      Cookies policy and privacy policy – absolutely essential under the GDPR, these explain to visitors how you gather their information and what you will do with it.
  3.      Terms and conditions of sale – these cover practicalities like payment and delivery, a good set of T&Cs can help protect your business by limiting its liability in some circumstances if any problems arise.
  4.      Cancellation form – if you sell to consumers (rather than other businesses only), they have far greater legal rights to cancel a purchase made online than one made face-to-face eg in a shop.

Try Sparqa Legal’s toolkit for starting an online business for simple templates to create the policies and T&Cs you need.

Step 4: Tell people about your policies and T&Cs!

It’s not enough just to cram some small print onto a page of your website. It is a legal obligation for you to make sure your customers know where your policies and terms are, so they can read them if they wish, even if many don’t (famously proven in an experiment that saw Londoners giving up their first-born for free WiFi). Three top tips on how to do this:

  1.      Give a clear link to your T&Cs in the footer of each page when your customer makes a purchase and make sure they can download the terms if they want to;
  2.      Give a link to your privacy and cookies policies at the foot of every page on your site, and flag them when a visitor is required to input personal information (eg when going through checkout or creating an account with you); and
  3.      Include a cookie banner for new arrivals, explaining what cookies your site uses and asking for their consent (you can’t include a pre-ticked box for this).

Step 5: Remember consumer rights

If you are pivoting from a face-to-face business model, beware that consumers have a lot more rights when they buy from you online. Make sure you are up to speed with the details, particularly around returns and cancellations – it will help you maintain good customer relations.

Bad customer service can lead to bad reviews, and online these can be very long-lasting indeed. A reliable freight or delivery provider will really help you here, as will taking particular care to be clear and upfront about your delivery timeframes and charges.

Step 6: Take care with data protection when you start marketing

Once you have your site all set up, it’s time to get marketing and drive some traffic to your site! There are lots of different approaches you can take and you will likely be most influenced by your budget as to what you do. If you can afford it, consider hiring a marketing specialist to help you plan a campaign.

You could consider:

  1.      Social media campaigns
  2.      SEO work (search engine optimisation to push you up the results list in a Google search)
  3.      PPC campaigns (pay per click)
  4.      Affiliate marketing (paying other websites to promote yours), or influencers (ensure they make it clear that things they post for you are paid content)
  5.      Direct marketing to a mailing list

Keep a careful eye on your data protection obligations with direct marketing– the legal obligations of a business are stringent here and you can be fined if you don’t follow them. For example:

  • You can only email existing customers about similar products or services to those they already bought from you.
  • You must include an unsubscribe link in your marketing emails.

The content in this article is up-to-date at the date of publishing. The information provided is for information purposes only, and is not for the purpose of providing legal advice. ©Sparqa Limited 2020. All rights reserved.

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