The Mail-Order Rule and Records Retention

Today’s Internet-based retailers can be thought of as the successors to the mail-order businesses of the past. In fact, when comparing only the order-fulfillment processes, there is little discernable difference between the two. Communication between buyers and sellers is now conducted mainly through email, rather than by telephone and postal mail, but as for the actual transport of physical goods, the technology has remained essentially the same. Predictably, many of the laws and regulations that apply to mail-order businesses now apply to Internet businesses as well. One particularly important such rule is the FTC’s so-called Mail Order Rule.

Simply put, the rule regulates how businesses may represent their shipping times to consumers. For example, if a company’s website promises that it will ship products in 10 to 14 days, the company must have a reasonable basis to believe this is true. Note that the rule doesn’t apply to the actual delivery times, which are always (to some extent) out of a company’s control. If a company chooses not to make any representation about its shipping times, the company must have a reasonable basis to believe that it can ship within 30 days (this is referred to as the “30-day Rule). Accordingly, if a company knows that shipping will take more than 30 days, it must inform its customers of this fact.

Another important provision of the mail order rule is its requirement for delay notices. If, after receiving a properly completed order, a company discovers that it will be unable to meet its promised shipping time, that company must contact the customer and request permission to delay. This notification must be made within the shipping time originally promised, or within 30 days if no time was promised. If the buyer does not want to wait, the rule requires that companies provide a full and prompt refund.

For the most part, the Mail Order Rule is easy to understand and comply with. The most complicated provisions of the rule arise in cases of repeated shipping delays, which will likely be rare for most businesses. There are, of course, potential FTC fines and other adverse legal actions that can apply to violators of the rule. The simplest and best reason to be forthright about shipping times, though, is that it is simply good business practice.