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Retailers: No more need for a customer telephone number?

19 September 2019. Published by Oliver Bray, Partner and Adam Williamson, Paralegal

In the proceedings brought by the German federation of consumer associations against Amazon, the Advocate General found that a retailer does not have to provide a telephone number as long as the consumer can contact the retailer quickly, the information provided is clear and accessible and communication can happen effectively.

The twist

The Advocate General's approach is far more flexible around communications with consumers, and it should enable platforms and retailers to adapt to new communication methods as they evolve.

Why is this important for retailers?

This development would provide a much more flexible approach to the provision of communication avenues for consumers. Platforms and retailers alike are hopeful that the Court of Justice of the European Union will confirm the Advocate General’s opinion later this year.

The development

Article 6(1)(c) the EU Consumer Rights Directive, requires traders to indicate in a clear and comprehensible manner “the geographical address at which the trader is established and the trader’s telephone number, fax number and email address, where available, to enable the consumer to contact the trader quickly and communicate with him effectively”.

Amazon offers an automated call-back facility and an online chat service, but the Bundesverband argued that these were not sufficient to discharge Amazon’s legal obligations under the Directive, and therefore decided to issue proceedings. They were unsuccessful.

Digging deeper

Advocate General Pitruzzella expressed the opinion that the aim of the Consumer Rights Directive is to increase the level of protection afforded to consumers and increase businesses’ competitiveness in the marketplace. The relevant provisions of the Directive have to be interpreted in such a way as to ensure the highest possible level of consumer protection without impacting on the organisational freedom of businesses.

Effective consumer protection is, according to the Advocate General, achieved through ensuring that consumers have the capability to communicate with the business effectively in the environment in which the transaction is carried out, which potentially includes online chat or call-back facilities. The Advocate General added that imposing a specific method of communication between the parties would be disproportionate to the objectives of consumer protection and liable to impose undue burdens on traders, and be particularly harmful for small undertakings trading on the Internet.

If consumers can “…contact the trader quickly and communicate with him efficiently, and the fact that the information is provided in a clear and comprehensible manner”, then traders' obligations under the Directive are fulfilled. The Advocate General added that the list of communication methods in the provision is simply an illustrative one, and the phrase “where available” does not create an obligation on businesses to set up a telephone or fax number if the parties enter into distance contracts.

Finally, the customer has to clearly understand what communication methods are available to them in the event that they would need to contact the business. The Advocate General also set out that the information has to be “easily, effectively and relatively quickly accessible by the consumer” to fall in line with the Directive.