Website Policies: Returns, Privacy, and Terms and Conditions

Website Policies: Returns, Privacy, and Terms and Conditions

While many people skim over or ignore the "fine print," it's there for a reason: To clearly define your responsibilities and protect your business. While the "fine print" may seem like a formality, it can be anything but.

For example, say you operate a t-shirt shop in a local mall. Business is booming, and you decide to sell shirts online. You set up a website, offer e-commerce, and off you go.

At your retail store your returns' policy is clearly stated: You will provide a refund for any item that is returned, un-worn, within thirty days. But you don't include your returns' policy on the website.

Three months later a customer requests a refund for an obviously worn shirt they purchased from your website. Do you have to honor the request? You could argue that you do not… but you did not set up clear expectations for your online customers. While no customer is likely to sue if you do not honor a t-shirt return, you do risk losing a potential long-term customer and creating negative word of mouth.

Is this just a simple example? Sure – but it happens all the time. Here are ways you can avoid misunderstandings by including the correct legal language on your site.


Start by detailing your transaction conditions: Minimum purchase amounts, when credit cards will be charged (at time of order, when product ships, etc.), and how customer returns will be credited to customer accounts.


When you sell products through e-commerce, always include clear notices about your returns' policy. Set a clear standard for how long you will accept returns. Some companies require customers to call for a return authorization before they will accept a return. (They ensure authorization has been granted by only receiving packages with a valid return authorization number.) Also, set conditions for returns. You may accept a return under any condition, or you may limit returns only to items that are damaged or defective. Also include your responsibilities in regard to shipping charges: Will you pay for the cost of shipping a return back to you, or will the customer? Set clear expectations, and take time to think about – and cover – as many potential scenarios as possible.


If your site will gather any information from customers, specify in your privacy policy how that information is gathered and will be used. For example, if customers provide email addresses, explain how those addresses will be used. You may only use email addresses in the event you need to contact customers about their orders. On the other hand, you may use those addresses to send advertisements or notifications… or you may even sell them to other companies as leads. Whatever you decide to do with the information you gather, make sure site-visitors know your intentions.

Fortunately, writing a clear privacy policy is relatively easy and should not require an attorney. Check out the privacy policies of large companies who operate websites similar to yours, and modify their policies appropriately. Then let your attorney review your policy to make sure it meets your specific needs.

Keep in mind that if you change your policy in a substantial way – for example, if you change from "we will sell or disclose your personal information" to "we reserve the right to sell your personal information to third-party companies," you should make a concerted effort to inform previous customers before you make that change.


All sites should include a copyright notice on each page. Include notifications of copyright and also any trademarks. For example, the notice, "Copyright ©2010 ACME Productions, Inc. All Rights Reserved" informs visitors that information (including photos, diagrams, and text) provided on your site should not be copied or distributed without permission.

Protection of Minors

If your site predominately serves an audience of children under the age of thirteen, special guidelines apply. You may be required to get parental consent before collecting or disclosing personal information about a child. On the other hand, you are not required to get consent if you collect an email address to respond to a one-time request, or to ensure the safety of a child (or of your site), or to provide notice to the parents of their child's activity on the site, or to regularly send newsletters or other information to the child (as long as you first notify the parents and give them the opportunity to decline on behalf of their child).

As you can see, running a site catering to children can be complicated: see Federal Trade Commission guidelines or consult with an attorney experienced in child Internet and e-commerce issues.


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