Terms & Conditions: From blind acceptance to blind trust
Study on the effectiveness of trust marks for fair terms and conditions

When you make purchases online, usually terms and conditions apply. Consumers often accept these terms and conditions without reading them. That is perhaps not really surprising: the terms and conditions are sometimes longer than Shakespeare’s Hamlet or Macbeth. Moreover, the language used is typically complex, despite European directives that require this information to be provided in a clear and comprehensible manner.

In collaboration with the University of Amsterdam, Time.lex and GfK, CentERdata has conducted several studies for the European Commission on general terms and conditions. We have conducted online experiments among over 18.000 consumers in 15 European countries to examine whether the shortening and simplification of terms and conditions helps consumers who want to be informed about them. Both strategies proved effective: they encouraged reading behaviour, and consumers were more satisfied with the content and less frustrated while reading. Consumers were also better able to distinguish fair from unfair provisions when the terms and conditions were shortened.

However, not everyone is motivated to read the terms and conditions. Therefore, we also looked for ways to encourage consumers to make more informed decisions as to whether to accept or reject terms and conditions without having to read them (referred to as “effortless awareness”). To this end, various trust marks for “fair conditions” have been tested (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. Trust marks (Dutch examples)

Most trust marks increased consumers’ trust in the terms and conditions as well as their purchase intentions. Which type of trust mark was trusted most depended on the type of web store. For domestic online stores, an endorsement by a national consumer authority was trusted most. For foreign online stores, in contrast, an endorsement by a European consumer authority was trusted most. A “promise-to-be-fair” made by the store itself caused consumers to be less inclined to buy from that store. All in all, the results show that consumers use trust marks in their assessment of the trustworthiness of the web store and their decision whether or not to buy there. Trust marks could thus be an effective means to make consumers aware of the substantive quality of online terms and conditions. 

The full reports can be found here:

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