It’s common to see signs in Kosovan shops warning that purchased goods cannot be returned. Sellers use their judgement to come up with policies in cases of faulty products and such self-made rules can vary from credit notes obliging customers to spend the same amount on a different product, to offering return on purchased goods for a limited duration of 24 hours.
An unfair business environment like this can flourish mainly because of uninformed consumers who are not aware of the laws in place to protect them, or that there are mechanisms to implement them. This lack of information was confirmed in 2020 when an EU-funded survey found that 42% of consumers don’t know that the Law on Consumer Protection exists and are still unaware of their rights under the law and that they could return goods whether bought in shops or online.
To fill the void, the Institute for Development Policy (INDEP) set up a platform with support from an EU grant using the power of social media to inform, educate and empower consumers in Kosovo. The Kosovo Consumer Watchdog (Mbrojtësit e Konsumatorëve) site explains the law in simple terms via posters and infographics and even interacts on specifics with individuals on the platform. The daily content is inspired by everyday issues that Kosovars encounter when purchasing goods or services. By speaking the language of those who needed access to this information, the platform reached an audience of 30,000 within its first year of operation. The increased level of awareness had an impact on official complaints submitted to the central authorities.
“A year after our platform was operational, the number of complaints registered at the Consumer Protection Department grew by a factor of eight,” says Fatbardha Restelica from INDEP. The total number of official complaints filed this year, up to the beginning of December, is a record 1,871 complaints. Mbrojtësit e Konsumatorëve advised consumers to file complaints related to food safety, violation of product warranty rights, and online shopping among others.
Pandemic inspired both e-commerce and unfair trading
Recognising the increase of e-commerce since the start of the pandemic, with online trading growing by 200 per cent in 2020, Mbrojtësit e Konsumatorëve stepped up their activity to protect consumers who were entering into this new relationship with sellers. “Consumers faced organised price increases, rights violations during online shopping, non-return of products and overall unfair trading practices,” says Restelica, who explains that awareness-raising was focused on checking sellers before purchases and on how to file complaints.
Taking the next step to protect consumers
Consumer policy and protection is an important tool to increase consumer trust, to improve competition and to help the recovery of the economy. INDEP is therefore motivated to follow further reforms in the sector closely, including keeping an eye on amendments to align the current law with EU legislation. The organisation has submitted comments to Kosovo institutions based on their research.
Official data show that this multi-pronged activism has improved overall consumer protection, including the handling of complaints, as there has been an increase in positive case resolution. However, Restelica says that citizens who receive a negative response are discouraged and do not exercise their right to file a lawsuit. This mainly happens because of the costs of proceedings and the long time it takes for cases to be resolved. “That is why our next objective is to establish a mechanism to support consumers in resolving complaints through mediation and legal remedies,” she adds with determination.
By empowering consumers with information on basic rights, Mbrojtësit e Konsumatorëve have turned the Kosovo consumer into an important source of market discipline, encouraging traders to compete by offering useful products and services, and to disclose information more transparently. This is also reflected in consumer trust in an NGO being able to defend their rights – 68% of Kosovars believe that a civil society organisation is capable of doing so: a figure similar to the EU average. As the watchdog which has been actively involved in public awareness, advocacy and media presence over the past few years, INDEP has made a large contribution to this level of confidence.
About the project
INDEP was supported by the European Union through a Framework Partnership Agreement to implement “Policy Advocacy and Coalition Building for Consumer Protection – PACT“ project in the field of consumer protection for 2019 to 2022. The project has put consumer protection at the centre of decision-making and the public policy cycle. Its main objectives were to empower consumers and increase awareness on consumer protection in Kosovo. In the implementation of these objectives, INDEP provided public policy recommendations and also led the “Mbrojtësit e Konsumatorëve” Consumer Protection Watchdog campaign.
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