The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has fined Halfords Limited £30,000 for sending 498,179 unsolicited marketing emails to people without their consent.

Halfords came to the attention of the ICO following complaints in relation to a direct marketing email about a “Fix Your Bike” government voucher scheme. The scheme allowed people to use a voucher worth up to £50 towards the cost of repairing a bicycle in any approved retailers or mechanics in England. Halfords sent an email notifying customer of the scheme. However, Halfords’ marketing email encouraged people to book a free bike assessment and to redeem the voucher at their chosen Halfords store.

The ICO investigation found that Halfords’ email message clearly advertised a service provided by the company, and that Halfords could not rely on ‘legitimate interest’ to send the marketing email, as claimed by the company.

According to electronic marketing rules, legitimate interest cannot be used as an alternative to consent when sending electronic marketing messages. The soft opt-in exemption however, allows organisations to send electronic marketing messages to customers whose details have been obtained during the course of a sale or negotiations for similar services, but it must offer a simple way for people to opt out.

The ICO ruled that Halfords could not rely on the soft opt-in exemption for customers that received the email, as they had already not opted in to receive emails from the company.

Head of Investigations, Andy Curry said:

“It is against the law to send marketing emails or texts to people without their permission. Not only this, it is a violation of their privacy rights as well as being frustrating and downright annoying.”

Commenting on the fine, a Halfords spokesperson said:

“We are very surprised at this decision. The email was sent as part of a collaboration with the Department for Transport (DfT) and the Energy Saving Trust. Its principal purpose was to alert people to DfT’s Fix Your Bike voucher scheme and inform them on how to redeem the vouchers. We understand that only one individual complained. We believed at the time – and continue to believe – that the email complied with the rules.

In Conclusion

We have been living with the GDPR for some years now and there will be an inherent tension between the legitimate interests of business to market their services as the interests of data subjects.

There is always a very fine line between a notification email, i.e. an MOT reminder, and a marketing email, i.e. sending a reminder and including a discounted voucher for your MOT and Servicing. On this occasion Halfords have fallen on the wrong side of the line and were unfortunate not to be able to rely on the soft opt-in. This is a timely reminder that any communication with customers or potential customers require constant review to ensure that the correct balance is met.

Don’t forget, this advice is general in nature and will need to be tailored to any one particular situation. As an RMI member you have access to the RMI Legal advice line, as well as a number of industry experts for your assistance. Should you find yourself in the situation above, contact us at any stage for advice and assistance as appropriate.

Motor Industry Legal Services

Motor Industry Legal Services (MILS Solicitors) provides fully comprehensive legal advice and representation to UK motor retailers for one annual fee. It is the only law firm in the UK which specialises in motor law and motor trade law. MILS currently advises over 1,000 individual businesses within the sector as well as the Retail Motor Industry Federation (RMI) and its members.