It’s that time of year when people’s thoughts turn to the run up to Christmas and the never-ending steam of online sales. Only this year, the world is very, very different.

The cost-of-living crisis has made the majority of people around the UK take a cold, hard look at their finances. The evidence suggests we are shopping carefully and becoming more discerning about what we spend our money on.

Of course, there are other factors that will affect what we buy this year too. For example, the impact of the pandemic means that there will be fewer ‘big ticket’ and popular purchases available. That’s just because production of many in-demand gifts has been dramatically curbed for a few years. Key components, like lithium batteries, are in short supply, which makes electronics and gadget gifts scarcer this year.

Finally, there’s still something of a backlog with shipping, transportation and delivery services, which means you could be facing longer delivery timescales and higher postage costs for some items.

Got all that?! So your gifts are all ordered, but happens if something goes wrong or isn’t right? Here’s my guide to your rights when returning goods. Oh, and my top tip is this: If you find yourself in dispute with a retailer about an item you want to return or get a refund on, send them this guide with your complaint, just so they know that you know exactly what your rights are…

Returning goods, the main rules

The most important law when it comes to returning goods is the Consumer Rights Act (which came in to play in October 2015).

The law covers goods and services you have purchased in the UK and whether they are ‘of satisfactory quality, as described or fit for purpose’. If the goods you buy don’t meet one or all of these categories you can seek a refund, replacement or repair depending on when things went wrong. This includes things that simply don’t turn up, along with most disputes with delivery firms too.

Under the law, if there is a problem with the goods or services that becomes apparent within the first 30 days of ordering, you can ask for a full refund. That includes the costs of postage too. There are exceptions though, so if you’ve ordered something tailored or bespoke, then this may not apply. There are a few other key exceptions, most notably holidays.

Returning things when you’ve changed your mind

If you bought goods or services online or over the phone then you have 14 days to return them under the Consumer Contract Regulations (2013) even if there’s nothing wrong with them. In-store purchases are different though and will depend on the shop’s policy.

Speed is of the essence here, so make sure you tell the retailer that you are returning an item rather than just sticking it back in the post. Items get lost and there are postal strikes at the moment, so stop the clock by speaking to the firm as soon as you decide to return the item.

If there’s nothing wrong with the item, then you usually have to pay for the postage. In the past, this wasn’t too much of an issue, as businesses tended to cover the cost of returns to encourage people to buy more stuff. However, those days are largely gone.

I must say, I am pretty outraged that online retailers are now charging their customers to return items. Online-only shops were significantly responsible for killing off many of our main high street brands because they didn’t have the burden of the costs associated with running a shop on the high-street.  So I think it’s a bit cheeky that they now want to charge people for returning items, given we have to speculatively order things like clothes to try them on and see if they fit. Many of these companies are dreadful when it comes to customer service too.

The question is, can they get away with charging for refunds? Sadly, yes. This isn’t illegal. But you can make your voice heard by checking before you buy to see if the business does charge for this vital service – and whether they have a phone number so you can call them if something goes wrong. If they don’t, think twice before you shop.

When do you get the money?

The retailer has 14 days to refund you from the point they receive the goods (or when you tell them if the goods are digital). That includes delivery costs for returning the item it’s damaged or misrepresented, but they only have to pay the cheapest option available, so you might end up covering the difference.

This brings me to another bugbear with retailers and refunds. Most shops will tell you that they have 3 to 7 working days to refund your account. Beyond the 14-day period, there’s no reason why they can’t refund you straight away. This arbitrary timescale seems to be a relic from ye olde days, when businesses would either refund by cheque or a refund to your bank or card would take a few days to hit your account. Payments to accounts are more or less instant these days, so if the money isn’t turning up when promised, notify your bank or card provider and ask them to ‘charge back’ the cash.

Delivery dates

You are entitled to expect your goods to be delivered on the agreed date that you were given when your order was placed. If no date was given or agreed, the trader must get your purchases to you within 30 days of the order being placed. If this does not happen, you are entitled to a full refund. This is stated in the Consumer Contracts Regulations 2013 (formerly the Distance Selling Regulations), if you fancy getting all legal with a stubborn seller. If you paid a supplement for a specified time or date of delivery, you can ask for this back too.

Goods bought from retailers abroad

Problems with orders from other countries are one of the fastest growing areas of complaint, as more and more foreign firms target you through online websites and social media advertisements.

Returns can also be difficult and expensive. So before you buy from a non-UK firm, check:

  • If they have a UK website. Look for a UK address and if it’s not clear, confirm with the retailer that they are UK based.
  • If the prices are in Sterling. If not, you pay the exchange rate at the point the firm debits you, which means the price can fluctuate quite a bit (a particular challenge with the volatile pound at the moment). You will probably pay bank or credit card processing charges too.
  • What the policy is for returns and how to contact the firm if something goes wrong.
  • If there will be import taxes and charges when the goods enter the country.

I hear lots of reports from people about items that seemed to come from a warehouse in the UK and arrived within days, but the firm turned out to be based abroad. Many of these firms sell through online marketplaces like Amazon or eBay, both of whom have complaint resolution schemes that you can complain through instead. But the moral of the tale here is check everything before you order, including how to contact the firm if there is a problem.

What about returns over 30 days?

If goods are faulty you have up to six months to return the items – and the burden of proof is on the retailer to prove the item wasn’t damaged. They are allowed to have one crack at a repair or replacing the item, but after that, you can ask for a refund.

Even over the six months, all is not lost, though you’ll need to prove why you didn’t realise the item was damaged or that the problem isn’t just down to wear and tear. Be prepared to compromise though. You could be looking at a repair or a replacement – and if the product has been upgraded since, you aren’t entitled to the upgraded version.

What about individual stores and their returns policies?

A retailer can’t ignore the law, but many of them offer better returns policies for things you don’t like or want, as part of their deal to keep you as a loyal customer. Many stores increased their timescales for returning goods over the pandemic and haven’t switched back, but don’t be complacent.

Featured in Times Money Mentor – Martyn James

Can I get a refund on a faulty item after the 30-day returns period?

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