There are many Omani enterprises that advertise and sell their products on Instagram. They include home bakers, abaya tailors and fashion accessory resellers. The customers of these virtual stores browse the catalogue of available items on Instagram, and make their purchase requests via Instagram direct messages or WhatsApp. Payment is usually made in advance through mobile banking, and the goods are collected from an agreed location.
To Omani consumers, Instagram provides a convenient way to shop that offers a great variety of products. Even though Instagram is not intended to be an ‘online store’, to many Omanis, Instagram shopping is their first and only online shopping experience. The experience is novel, fun, and addictive, especially when the advertised goods are offered at extremely low prices in comparison to what is offered in the local market.
The problem with these Instagram shops is that they are not always trustworthy. Many customers get disappointed when they discover that the goods they bought do not match what they saw on Instagram, that the photographs exaggerate the size of the goods, and in some cases, that the goods delivered are defective. Some Omani customers also get very upset when they discover that what they thought is a bargain price is actually higher than the price of the same item in the local market.
Those who shop on Instagram do not usually enjoy many consumer rights. Instagram shops can be nothing more than an Instagram account with no real name, address, or any government registration details. The amount lost in an individual transaction can be too small to justify a formal investigation by the authorities, and there is no invoice detailing what was agreed upon in the transaction.
Technically, Instagram sales are subject to the Consumer Protection Law. The law regulates all those who provide goods and services to consumers, regardless of whether they are doing it in the course of a business activity and regardless of whether they are formally registered as businesses. Under the Consumer Protection Law and its regulations, the consumer has the right to return any good that he or she buys within 15 days of receiving that good if it does not satisfy the purpose for which it was purchased, is faulty, or does not match its original description. It is prohibited for the supplier to declare that any goods purchased cannot be returned and must accept the returned goods or fix them without any additional cost to the consumer.
The law and the regulations have special provisions for dangerous goods, special goods to which no label can be applied, and other unique categories of products, but it has no special provisions for online shopping even though this is currently one of the most pressing consumer concerns in Oman. Online shopping is a unique experience that puts consumers in a weaker position because they cannot see the goods or the seller. Currently, the law only allows consumers to return the goods if they are defective and within 15 days only. In some other countries, consumers have a ‘cooling off’ period that allows them to return any good they purchase online even if there is nothing wrong with it. Consumers might also have a longer warranty period, and violators of online consumer rights might have more stringent punishments. The Omani law does not provide online consumers with any special treatment.
The Public Authority for Consumer Protection should reconsider the way it sees online consumers and should put more effort in encouraging legitimate Instagram stores to display their registration details on their profiles to help consumers distinguish them from untrustworthy and unregistered businesses.