Only 23% of travel sites passed EU consumer rules test
These services are now among the most frequent consumer complaints according to the European Consumer Centres.
Since the online booking of air travel and hotels is increasingly popular among European consumers, more and more comparison tools exist online and have become a very popular source of information.
More than 80% of European consumers used price comparison websites in 2010, with five out of ten consumers using them at least once a month (see online).
The trend has grown further with the growing use of smartphones and tablets which allow consumers to access and compare information on prices, quality and product specifications at all time.
It was indeed timely to verify the compliance of comparison tools operators with the existing legal framework and to take corrective action where needed, while also providing a follow up to the Sweep 2013 on travel services which is closely related.
Most of the checked websites (339 of the 352) were comparing prices in the travel sector.
Some authorities wished to expand the scope of the screening beyond the travel sector (Sweep Plus).
As a result, they examined websites that offered comparison of prices in financial, TV, internet, phone services or comparisons of electricity and gas offers (13 websites in total).
Moreover, the majority of the comparison tools were offering booking options or were readdressing to websites where the consumer could proceed with their purchase
Only a very limited number of websites (24 of the 352) were simply comparing prices. As a result, the sweep examined, in practice, mainly travel booking websites.
In this screening, national authorities checked whether comparison tools provided essential, truthful and clear information on the price of the service or product and on the provider of the comparison tool.
They also examined the clarity of the ranking, of the comparison method used and the way the user reviews were presented.
Of the 352 websites checked, only 23% (117) passed the first test for compliance with the relevant EU consumer rules and almost 67% of sites (235) were flagged for further investigation.
The biggest problems are related to the way the price is presented and analysed. In one third of the cases, the price first shown is not the same as the final price, while in one fifth of the cases, promotional offers did not really exist.
Moreover, in almost one third of the cases the total price – or the way this was calculated – was not clear.
Other problems related to scarcity as certain comparison websites did not specify that statements about scarcity (e.g. "only 2 left", "only available today") applied strictly to their own website, or to user reviews that were presented in an unclear or un-transparent way and/or seemed untrue.
Deceptive online selling practices often concern operators located in several Member States.
Misleading operators can be detected and tackled more effectively thanks to EU wide co-operation.
Under the Consumer Protection Cooperation (CPC) Regulation, European authorities co-operate to suppress illegal practices which spread over several Member States. Compliance checks carried out simultaneously in a specific sector across the EU are more effective.
Cooperation reduces fragmentation in the European internal market, for the benefit of both consumers and reputable businesses.
The 235 websites with irregularities will have to correct the irregularities.
Consumer Protection Cooperation authorities will ensure they comply by activating their national enforcement procedures ■