Have you ever woken up with buyer’s regret? Did you decide to order a giant inflatable unicorn at 2am after a few too many sherries?

Or have you realised that you’ve spent money that you don’t really have?

Well fear not! Because if you ordered online then there’s a really good chance you can cancel your order and get your cash back. That’s because the Consumer Contract Regulations – one of two laws that give us a wide range of rights when we buy goods or services – allows a cooling off period for ‘distance purchases’ of 14 days.

But wait! Just like everything, it’s not that simple. There are a few exceptions to the rule. More worryingly, many retailers hate the law and make it as difficult as possible to invoke your rights.

So here’s my guide to how the law works – and the sneaky tricks used by retailers to stop your cancelling your order.

What are the laws that give us our shopping rights?

You shouldn’t need to quote legislation when making a complaint or cancelling an order from a retailer or any provider of goods or services. But it helps to know what they are, just in case a business tries to mislead you about your rights.

The two most important laws are:

The Consumer Rights Act, which came in to force in October 2015, gives you the majority of your shopping rights. Before the Consumer Rights Act, the Sale of Goods Act (1979) offered similar protections.

The act covers goods and services (including digital goods) and whether they are of ‘satisfactory quality, as described or fit for purpose’. If the goods you buy don’t fit in to these categories you can seek a refund, replacement or repair depending on when things went wrong.

The Consumer Contract Regulations, which came in to force in 2013 and gives you the right to cancel contracts when you buy online within 14 days. The law also covers digital (virtual) goods that you purchase. The Consumer Contract Regulations also spell out what a ‘fair’ contract between you and a business is.

As with all laws, there are exceptions to the rules. So while most of the things you purchase will be covered, a few things are not covered by the law.

How does the cooling off period work?

When you buy most goods or services online, then you have a 14 day ‘right to cancel’ period if you change your mind. There are exceptions though, like items made to order, rental housing contracts and most things related to holidays and travel.

Here’s the full list of what’s exemp

  • Gambling as covered by the Gambling Act 2005.
  • Construction and sale of immovable property including building of new properties.
  • Residential letting contracts.
  • Package travel contracts.
  • Timeshare contracts.
  • Supply of consumables by tradespeople such as milkmen
  • Purchases from vending machines.
  • Single telecom connections (e.g. payphones and café internet connection).

Financial services are generally exempt although warranties, credit agreements and insurance which are offered in conjunction with the sale of a non-financial goods or services, will still need to meet the requirements for cancellation. Or in plain English, a financial product sold with something else should be covered. In addition, some financial products also give you a two-week cancellation period. 

Contracts which are only partly covered:  

  • Passenger transport contracts.
  • Low value off-premises contracts (value less than £42). These are any goods or services sold away from the business premises, like someone cleaning your windows.
  • Items dispensed on prescription.

While not specifically mentioned in the legislation, the following things usually can’t be cancelled or returned:

  • Perishable goods (flowers, fruit, etc).
  • Items made to order.
  • Items personalised (like getting a watch engraved).

How are retailers ignoring the law?

While our shopping rights are incredibly wide-ranging and useful, problems can still arise.

In order to invoke your right to change your mind when you’ve purchased goods online, you’ll need to contact the business within that timeframe. However, some of the biggest online retailers don’t have customer service phone lines or email addresses. That leaves you at the mercy of chatbots, online forms and guides and awful Live Chat options.

Don’t give up. Most chatbots will default to a human customer services agent if it can’t answer your question. When you do chat to a human, you may find that they don’t understand the law or how it works. So feel free to send them a link to this article, so they know you know your stuff!

In worst case scenario, you have to use social media to contact a business and cancel the order. That may include *shudders* Twitter/X. Direct message the business and ask them to ‘DM’ you about your order.

Sometimes retailers will claim that the item is already out for dispatch. That means you may have to pay to return the goods. Alternatively, you could simply refuse to accept the parcel if you catch the delivery person.

I’ve also noticed a rise in major retailers who don’t allow you to raise concerns or contact them for 48 hours. There’s no reason why this rule should be in place, so I can only assume it’s there to make it harder to cancel. If you’re not organised, then it’s easy to forget that you need to cancel an item you’ve changed your mind about. Put it in your diary, just in case!

Finally, we don’t have a regulator for the retail industry – and there’s no free ombudsman service that you can go to if there’s a dispute. This causes no end of problems, as it means if there’s a problem with a business that you can’t sort out, you’ll need to threaten them with the Small Claims Court. This isn’t as hard as you might think. In fact, watch this space and I’ll cover how to do this in an upcoming article…

Claiming back your cash

If you’re trying to get your cash back but the business isn’t playing ball, then you may find that the way you paid for the goods or services can offer a solution.

There two words to remember if you’ve paid for goods or services with a debit or a credit card are: ‘charge back’.

If your order is cancelled and the goods aren’t sent or have been returned, you can call your card provider and ask them to charge back the money if the retailer is taking too long to refund you. As a general rule shops and businesses have 14 days max to refund you from the point you cancel or when they receive the goods if you’ve returned them.

There are time limits for making a charge back claim, usually 120 days from the date you make your purchase. You may need to fill out a form explaining what’s gone wrong and why you want the card provider to step in and help you. Charge back isn’t the law, but it is widely considered to be covered by good banking practice, which means you can go to the Financial Ombudsman if there’s a problem.

If you’ve paid on a credit card, you might be able to claim missing refunds back from your credit card provider, but only if you’ve spent over £100. This is known as a ‘section 75 claim’ and you can read my full guide here

Finally, e-payment services (like PayPal) have buyer/seller dispute resolution services that you can use if there’s a problem. There are lots of complaints about these dispute resolution services, but using an e-payment business gives you more protection than you’d get from other payment methods like bank transfers.

Featured in Mirror – Martyn James

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