Anthony Mcloughlin

A couple of years ago I was shopping online for an RC car for my nephew. I spent hours looking at reviews and prices until I finally found the one I wanted to buy. So I visited the online store and added it to my basket. Job done, you would think, but my wandering eye saw a (2) symbol on the shopping basket icon. Curious, I clicked through to see my basket, and the store had added batteries to my order.

The store had made a buying decision for me.

This made me think, who are they to add items to my shopping basket without my consent?

y u no let me make my own decisions? meme

So I did some research, and what I discovered was really rather scary… not only had adding items to a basket by default with no-opt in been going on for years, but it was common place in the industry. In fact, some people were recommending the practice of automatically adding products to people’s baskets to boost online sales.

Now, e-commerce stores would have you and I believe that they’ve been adding value to our online shopping experiences by predicting what we need, but in reality, it’s simply been about making more money. Catch 1 in 10 people out and you’ve sold 10% more stock and chances are, because the added product is relevant or in some cases cheap (example coming up soon), the customer won’t make a complaint.

In short, the practice is unethical, but it wasn’t illegal at the time.

Since then the EU have stepped in, and as a result, a law under the Consumer Contract Regulations in the UK was introduced in June 2014 to protect shoppers from what is called “sneak into basket”.

man sneaking item in womans shopping cart

Prankster sneaking items into an unsuspecting shopper’s basket

The law as it stands today

The Consumer Contract Regulations which implement the Consumer Rights Directive in the UK make it clear that it is illegal for online stores to add additional items to a shopper’s basket automatically where additional payment is sought. This applies to pre-ticked boxes where a shopper would have to take action (un-ticking a box or in some cases ticking a box) in order to avoid additional payment. However, if the items/subscriptions are free then the Consumer Rights Directive does not apply.

In addition to this, hidden costs such as paid subscriptions and extra postage charges have been outlawed from the shopping basket. So from June 2014, shops have had to disclose all costs to the customer. And that’s a good thing.

But not everybody is following the law…

With over a year to adapt to changes in the law – more time than any court would deem satisfactory – you’d expect businesses to have changed their policy’s by now.

But some businesses haven’t.

I’ll give you a couple of hints as to one – they made £180 million in profit in 2014, and their name rhymes with Imports Collect. Got it?

It’s Sports Direct.

Sports Direct add a Value Magazine and a ‘free’ giant mug to all of their online orders for an additional £1 automatically. You can see this here:

sports direct sneak into basket magazine

This is illegal and Sports Direct are breaking the law. 

Also practicing the dark art of “sneak into basket” are Appliances Direct. Cheekily, they add no less than THREE EXTRA PRODUCTS to your cart with some items. I added an Electric cooker hood to my basket only to have a £1.99 warranty, £12.97 Grease Filter and £14.98 Carbon Filter added to my basket for me.

Here’s the screenshot:

appliances direct items added to basket by default

Appliances Direct are part of the “Buy it Direct” group, who have several other online stores. So I decided to check them all out and found that three more of their online stores also sneaked items into my basket.

Below is a screenshot of my Laptops Direct basket with three extra items added by default.

laptops direct items added to basket by default

Here’s one last example that’s arguably sneakier than the previous examples.

When ordering certain cycles, Ribble Cycles pre-select for you a, “Ribble Bottle Cage with Ribble Bottle Black”. If you look closely, you’ll notice that it doesn’t even have a price next to it so you’d assume it doesn’t cost extra, just like the other default items that are selected. Well, you’d be assuming wrong.

If you click the drop down, you’ll see the alternative option, “No Bottle Cage currently selected. (Subt £3.99).” Turns out you have to manually select this option to remove the extra £3.99 that Ribble Cycles pre-selected for you. Sneaky or what?

ribble cycles sneak into basket example

What will happen to businesses breaking the law?

Businesses who do not comply with the laws set out under the Consumer Contract Regulations leave themselves open to dispute and revenue loss because customers can seek recourse for the transaction, which includes money back while retaining ownership of the items purchased. Heather Burns, author of The Web Designer’s Guide to the Consumer Rights Directive, explains:

“Businesses who don’t comply face a loss of revenue. If you make a purchase, whether that’s buying goods or a service, on a non-compliant web site, you have the right to recourse through your nearest Trading Standards office, in other words, your local Council. Unlike the cookie law, which is dealt with by one UK-wide bureaucracy which has bigger fish to fry, this law is dealt with on a local level.

A failure to comply cancels the transaction. You can get your money back and keep the goods. If the sale was for a service or a digital download, the contract is cancelled and no further payments are due.”

So to summarise, any processed online orders with “sneak into basket” products are automatically void and consumers have the right for a full refund as well keeping the goods, leaving businesses out of pocket.

However, the law has not been publicised very well and many businesses aren’t even aware of the law, just like the majority of consumers aren’t. I mean, did you even know the law existed?

So whilst awareness remains extremely low, online stores like Sports Direct will continue to try and charge you £1 for an oversized mug and a magazine that you’ll never read. And, consumers who fall foul of “sneak into basket”, most probably won’t complain and ask for a refund.

Your turn

Have you recently purchased something online from a non-compliant website? Perhaps you have sought a refund because of it? Share your experiences by commenting below, and don’t forget to share the URL of the stores in question.

Ending on a lighter note, check out these pranksters sneaking things in to people’s shopping carts for a joke!


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Anthony Mcloughlin

Posted By Anthony Mcloughlin

Anthony is a key member of the digital team at Tone, helping dig deep into stats to further understand user behaviours. Follow him on Twitter @anthony_mac85 and on Google+