Online sales are this year expected to grow by 36 per cent - but businesses must think first before jumping into selling on the internet, warns Natalie Gennard, an associate at Black Country solicitors Waldrons Commercial.

Retailing online hit new heights last Christmas, with nearly £5 million worth of goods bought over the internet. That means setting up an online sales outlet is an attractive proposition for many companies.

"There are practical points to consider to ensure an online business succeeds," urges Ms Gennard, who specialises in the legal implications of online trading.

"As well as ensuring your business reputation is not compromised by poor online service, companies need to protect themselves from specific online threats such as copyright infringement and breach of confidentiality."

According to online shopping monitor, complaints against online retailers fall mainly into four categories - goods not being delivered, payment being taken but delivery not made, customers being unable to get hold of the retailer to make a complaint, and faulty goods that cannot be returned.

Businesses must ensure their terms and conditions of business are watertight and written with the specific circumstances of online selling in mind, says Ms Gennard.

"There are many differences between standard and e-commerce contracts. From placing the order through payment, to delivery, cancellation, defective goods, price increases, confidentiality and data protection, contractual formalities are different to that of 'normal' trading contracts," she added.

"For example, an online order placed by a customer is merely an 'offer' to enter into a contract with your business; your website must acknowledge the order for a formal contract to be made.

"Once that acknowledgement has been sent, your company is bound by it, even if you have made a mistake with the price. So careful wording of any acknowledgement can save difficulties."

As well as protecting the consumer, online retailers should be aware of safeguarding their own business assets.

"Care needs to be taken to protect any original designs which could be registered, or literary works, artistic images or sound recordings which could be copied," advises Ms Gennard.

"Online businesses should be specifically tailored to the online goods and services provided and not confused with usual business practices."

With £26 billion worth of online sales expected this year, and internet shop-pers spending more than £1,000 a head for the first time, opportunities for profit are substantial.

Whether already trading online or just at the planning stage, businesses are urged to check their legal position.

Waldrons has offices in Merry Hill, Dudley and Kingswinford.