How to sell online to other countries

Online selling means that you can now start up a business almost immediately and sell to anyone, anywhere. However, even without a bricks-and-mortar premises, there are still rules and regulations that apply to your business.

Laws that apply to all businesses, such as the Consumer Protection Act (which ensures that products are safe, and penalises businesses selling unsafe goods) also apply to the entrepreneur selling from home. But if you're selling online to other countries, there are specific things you need to be aware of. Here's what startups need to know about selling their wares here, there and everywhere.

Consumer contracts regulation

Formerly Distance Selling Regulations, Consumer Contracts Regulation requires businesses selling remotely to provide certain information before and after orders are placed.

Before an order is placed, the business must display:

  • Your business name and contact details
  • A description of your goods or services
  • The full price
  • Payment options for your customer
  • Delivery information and costs
  • Minimum length of the contract
  • Conditions for terminating contracts
  • Information about the customer’s rights to cancel within 14 days

This information can normally be found in the terms and conditions, but if goods are being sold over the phone the information can be provided verbally.

If the items aren’t in stock and the seller wants to send substitute goods, this needs to be agreed upon before you place your order. In addition, the cost of returning substitutes is always at the seller’s expense.

After an order is placed, the business must get in touch with the customer in writing before the goods or services have been delivered, and they must provide information on:

  • Details of the purchase
  • Cost, including tax and delivery costs
  • Delivery arrangements
  • The minimum duration of any contract, and arrangements for terminating the contract
  • How to cancel the order and who pays for returning goods
  • A contact address for complaints
  • Guarantees or after-sales services
  • Helpline call charges

Extra rules for selling online

As well as the above distance selling, there are some extra steps for businesses that are selling online. They are:

  • List the steps involved in a customer placing an order
  • Acknowledge receipt of any orders electronically
  • If there are errors in the customers order, take reasonable steps for customers to correct them (eg if they have ordered too many)
  • Let customers know what languages they can carry out the transaction through
  • Make sure customers can store and reproduce your terms and conditions (aka they can download them)
  • Provide your email address
  • Provide your VAT number, if your business is registered for VAT
  • Make sure you provide clear prices and delivery costs for your products

More and more SMEs are using ready-made e-commerce platforms such as Shopify, which help simplify the process. However, if you’re using a US-based platform ensure it’s compliant with EU regulations.

Selling within the EU

If you would charge VAT to customers in the UK, then you need to charge VAT to EU customers too. If you’re selling goods and the value in any EU country is above the ‘distance selling threshold’, you must register and charge VAT in that country. You can find out the distance selling thresholds for individual countries here.

There are special rules on registering for VAT if you sell digital services abroad. This includes things such as broadcasting, video on demand, and downloadable content.

If selling outside of the EU, you don’t charge VAT – instead, you fill out a customs declaration when you ship the products.

Find out more about VAT when selling abroad with these handy tips.

Data and fraud protection

When selling your product online, it’s vital that you take steps to keep the personal details of your customers safe – cybercrime is an area where startups are increasingly targeted, so don’t fall into the trap of thinking that you’re too small to be of interest to fraudsters. You’re not!

All data collected by online retailers is subject to the Data Protection Act, and it’s vital that businesses ensure they have a privacy policy that clearly explains how they propose to use customer data.

If you’re collecting card payments, ensure you’re complying with the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI-DSS) – this means meeting security and encryption requirements for businesses that store or transmit payment data. Card payment providers designed for SMEs, such as iZettle, can ensure you stay compliant. Third parties such as Paypal will also process the payment and collect the data on behalf of the business.

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