Byline: Andrew Mernin
WHEN the ripple effect from the economic crisis first swept its way from the bankers' boardroom onto the high street, an army of thrifty shoppers snubbed the aisles and logged online in search of a bargain.
However, the initial lift felt by internet retailers in early days of the financial downturn appear to be short-lived, according to latest figures.
For the first time, online shopping sales have dropped for the third week in a row and visits to UK-based shopping sites have fallen by 8% in the last three weeks, figures from internet monitoring company Hitwise have found.
Fortunately for the increasing number of budding Amazons and ebays based in the North East, there could be help at hand from the unlikely source of the Brussels law makers.
In uncertain times, the region's embattled online merchants could be boosted by a growth in international trade thanks to changes afoot on the Continent.
The EU is looking to encourage more Europeans to shop online and across national borders by introducing a new set of laws aimed at boosting customer confidence in internet shopping.
The proposed consumer protection laws would also cut costs and red tape for internet retailers. If it gets past the blueprint phase, the new legislation will oblige retailers to make product information available before a sale, guarantee delivery within 30 days and allow a 14-day 'cooling off' period to allow buyers to change their minds.
The new European order, which still needs the approval of the member states, is expected to shake up the ecommerce sector and will re-write the EU's current consumer rights directive - much of which pre-dates the dawn of internet shopping.
The impending changes have been warmly received by most online retailers in the North East we spoke to, although there are still Europe-wide issues to be addressed.
Certainly a law ensuring customers receive a full refund within seven days if goods fail to arrive will help internet entrepreneur Andy Redfern, who says consumers are often nervous about spending money online.
Mr Redfern welcomes the impact the new laws will have on his business - Gateshead-based, eco-friendly retailer Ethicalsuperstore.com.
He says: "Customers are often nervous about what their rights are if they make a mistake and order the wrong product - this directive will make clear consumers' rights.
"The biggest problem for the ethical online retailer is the shoddy, cheeky and occasionally criminal small-time players who pop up sometimes overnight.
"There is already good legislation for making your online transaction hassle-free, but it seems the rules are rarely enforced against the sub-standard players. …