Of all of the things that people complain about, one particular sector is miles ahead of the rest when it comes to complaints. I’m looking at you, retailers.

Every week, thousands of people experience problems with purchases made online or on the high street. Chances are, you or someone you know will have had a dispute in the last year about a return, or a missing delivery or poor-quality goods.

Astoundingly, despite the fact that millions of complaints are made about retailers every year, there is no regulator for the industry and no free Ombudsman or Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) service. That means that if you can’t sort out a complaint with a shop, you’ll need to threaten them with the Small Claims Court if you want to take things further.

I’ve written about how it’s easier to use the Small Claims Court than you might think, but that’s not really the point. Far too many people lose out due to terrible customer service from retailers, some of whom have even had the audacity to remove customer service phone numbers from their websites. Here’s a New Year’s resolution for us all: Don’t use any business that doesn’t have a phone number. After all, if they can’t be bothered to speak to you when things go wrong, then why give them your hard-earned cash?

The thing that frustrates me the most about shopping disputes is we have some very clear, all-encompassing laws in the UK that govern all aspects of the goods and services we buy. Some retailers ‘overlook’ these laws from time to time. So that’s why it pays to know the rules.

Here’s my guide to your shopping rights. Feel free to send it to businesses that don’t play ball. And if you find a retailer that’s flouting the law, shop ‘em!

The two laws that give us our shopping rights

When buying goods or services we have two laws in the UK that give us a wide range of rights if things go wrong.

The two 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 came in to force in (2013) and give you the right to cancel contracts when you buy online within 14 days (some exceptions apply. 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.

What if I buy goods or services and they are faulty?

From terrible t-shirts, to gadgets that turn out to be a load of plastic tat, poor quality purchases dominate the complaints I hear about retailers.

But it’s not just physical goods that might cause you a problem. You can also pay for a service that a business subsequently fails to provide. In addition, you may have ordered something online but the retailer looks like it’s going to go bust while you’re waiting for a delivery.

Under these circumstances, you are entitled to a refund, thanks to the Consumer Rights Act, though if a firm is going in to liquidation, you’ll need to call your card provider and ask them to ‘charge back’ the money urgently.

What does the law say?

Goods or services that you purchase must be:

  • Of satisfactory quality: This can be a bit subjective, but in general terms, the retailer must not misrepresent how well the goods have been made, should provide the full scope of the service they are offering or ensure that the goods do what they said they would do effectively.
  • As described: The item or service should be as the retailer said it would be. So if you buy a brown leather sofa, it should match the colour, fabric and description given by the retailer.
  • Fit for purpose: You should be able to use the goods or services for the purpose they were supplied for. So if you’ve bought a hard drive that’s designed to work with Apple laptops, then it should do precisely that.

The law also says that they must last ‘a reasonable amount of time’ (more on that later).

Timescales and your rights

There are a number of timescales for complaining and returning goods that you need to bear in mind.

14 days

When you buy most goods or services online, then you usually 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. There’s a full list on page 8 here.

30 days

No matter where you bought the goods or services, you are entitled to a full refund if what you have purchased online or in store is damaged, not as advertised or not fit for purpose within 30 days of purchase. This only applies for companies based in the UK (e.g. not charging you in foreign currency or with addresses or websites abroad).

Six months

If you go over the 30 days and the item stops doing what it’s supposed to don’t panic! You have six months from the date you bought the item to return it for the same reasons. You must give the retailer one attempt at repairing or replacing the item, then they must give you a full refund.

Over six months

Even over the six months, goods must last ‘a reasonable amount of time’ so you can still ask for a full or partial refund, or repairs and replacements, though the responsibility switches to you to prove that you haven’t broken the goods. You might need to compromise though unless you feel strongly enough to take the retailer to court. Have a think about what you might accept as a partial refund or alternative replacement.

Returns and costs

If items are misrepresented or don’t work the retailer must cover the costs for returning the item. Once it’s back, they have 14 days to refund you from the point they receive the goods (or when you tell them you don’t want them if the goods are virtual/digital). That includes delivery costs for returning the item (but they only have to pay the cheapest option available, so you might end up covering the difference).

What if I just don’t like the item?

If you have buyer’s remorse, don’t like the purchase when it arrives or it’s a gift and you have a receipt, then you are bound by the retailer’s returns policy. These vary enormously, but have got much stingier in recent years.

Retailers will generally allow you to have a credit note to spend in store or may allow a refund if the item hasn’t been damaged or taken out of its packaging. It pays to check the returns policies online before you contact the shop though, so you are fully briefed on the returns policy for items that you don’t want.

However, if an item doesn’t fit, like a dress that’s labelled size 8 but is clearly too big or small, you can argue that the item has been misrepresented.

Modern day problems

Laws are great for setting our rights in stone. But they take a long time to draft and hit the statute books. This means that they can often go out of date quickly.

While our shopping laws are strong, they don’t always fit the way we live and shop today. For example, even though the Consumer Rights Act is only eight years old, it doesn’t fully cover using a third-party business when making purchases. This might seem a bit niche, but think about when you buy something using a business that does not provide the underlying goods or services, like an online travel firm. Or you use an e-payments system like PayPal to make a purchase. In theory, using these third parties could affect your refund rights. So make sure you read the T&Cs before using these firms.

Featured in Times Money Mentor – Martyn James


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