A Legal Checklist For A Retail Website
October 27, 2017
A Legal Checklist For A Retail Website

By Cliff Ennico

"I'm planning to set up a fashion accessories website.

I think I will be selling mostly on Amazon,eBay and other online platforms, but after watching your YouTube video 'Doing Business on the Internet', I realize it's going to be tough to build a distinctive brand without my own website.

What are some of the legal things I need to think about before my site 'goes live.'  Do I really need the 30-page Terms and Conditions document that I see on other websites?  Nobody reads those things, in my opinion.

I've said this before (on YouTube and elsewhere) and I'll say it again - every small business needs a website of its own, especially if it's looking to build a distinctive brand.  There are three reasons:

  • Everybody expects you to have one (if your name is 'Suzie's Fantasies' and I don't see you at www.suziesfantasies.com, it's an instant credibility kill).

  • There is only one place on the Internet - only one - where you can sell stuff and keep 100% of the profits, and that's your own website. 

  • When you sell from your own website, you make the rules - when you sell on Amazon, eBay or anywhere else online, you have to follow their rules, and you may not agree with their rules.
What is more, all of your pages on social media, eBay, Amazon and elsewhere should have one primary goal - driving traffic to your website.  

The legal documents you need for a retail website are fairly straightforward:

Copyright Notice.  Okay, this isn't strictly speaking a document, but the federal copyright notice should appear as a footer on ALL your Web pages (not just your homepage.  It will look something like this: "© 2017 Clifford R Ennico.  All Rights Reserved." If you have a corporation or limited liability company (LLC), copyright should be in the company's name, not your individual name.

The "All Rights Reserved" part of the notice isn't required by law, but it's good to have:  translated into layperson's English, it means "unless I've given you permission to use any of this stuff, you don't have permission, so don't do it unless you have a high tolerance for pain."

Terms and Conditions a/k/a "the User's Agreement".  Yes, you are right, very few people read the legal documents on websites.  There is, however, one who does:  a lawyer representing someone who wants to sue you and is looking for loopholes they can crawl through to make your life miserable.       

For that reason, I'm not a fan of "plain English" legal documents for my client's websites.  Plain English is not precise enough to prevent lawsuits - give me old fashioned Legalese any day of the week.  Since nobody is reading your agreement anyway, why are you concerned about making it easy to read?  These documents exist for one reason only - to protect you against liability.  Let your lawyer go crazy here and make the document as tight and ironclad as possible.     

Be sure the customer "accepts" your agreement terms as part of the checkout process.  I really like the feature that requires customers to scroll down to the end of the document before the "I accept" button is enabled.

Returns and Exchanges Policy.  Go to any UPS Store any day of the week and count the number of boxes with merchandise being returned to Amazon, Zappos, and other online retailers.  Your customers expect to know exactly when they can (and can't) return merchandise.

Many retail websites bury this information in their "Terms and Conditions" document, and I think that's a mistake.  The "Returns and Exchanges Policy" should appear as a link at the bottom of each of your Web pages.  That way the customer can find the information they need easily, and will help stave off claims that "I didn't know I couldn't return the dress a year later."

Wholesale Terms.  If you allow other businesses to have wholesale accounts, then your wholesale terms and conditions should also be spelled out in a separate policy document, again with a link at the bottom of each Web page.

Privacy Policy.  Every business website - not just retail - needs a policy saying what you will and won't do with customers' "personally identifiable" information such as e-mail addresses and credit card numbers.

Other Policies.  If you have lots of content on your website, consider a "Copyright and Permissions Policy" letting people know when and how they can use your copyrighted material.  If you have blogs or other social media features on your site, you may need a separate "Social Media Rules and Regulations" document outlining acceptable behavior.       

No two websites are exactly alike in their legal needs, so try not to borrow another site's legal documents - tell your lawyer what you're planning to do on your website and have him/her custom tailor the documents you will need.  It will be well worth the expense.     

And if you do decide to "borrow" someone else's documents, please be sure to change the company name before you post them online.

Cliff Ennico (cennico@legalcareer.com) is a syndicated columnist, author, and host of the PBS television series 'Money Hunt'.  This column is no substitute for legal, tax or financial advice, which can be furnished only by a qualified professional licensed in your state.  To find out more about Cliff Ennico and other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit our Web page at www.creators.com.  COPYRIGHT 2017 CLIFFORD R. ENNICO. DISTRIBUTED BY CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC. Permission granted for use on DrLaura.com.

Posted by Staff at 10:03 AM