I love a bargain. And if I’m visiting friends or exploring a new city or town in the UK, I can’t resist the lure of the local charity shops.

Of course, the advantage of buying second-hand goods in person is you have the opportunity to check the item and look for flaws before purchasing. But in the past few years there’s been an explosion in online ‘vintage’ stores specialising in everything from last season’s clothes to retro goods and old electronics.

Millions of people use these websites in the UK, with growth fuelled by the cost-of-living crisis and a desire to cut back on fast-fashion and unnecessary waste. However, there’s a big problem.

Lately, I’ve been hearing a lot of complaints about these ‘online marketplaces’ (to use the official term for websites that connect buyers with sellers of goods). The ‘buyer/seller’ dispute policies are the route of the problem. This is the online marketplace complaint handling system. Both buyers and sellers are reporting that the marketplaces are not handling complaints fairly or constantly. And if you aren’t happy, your only option is going to court.

So what are your rights when you buy ‘pre-loved’ goods in store or online? Here’s my guide.

Who’s selling?

Your rights depend on whether the person selling goods or services is doing so as a private individual or a business. This is an important distinction because retailers in the UK are covered by two laws that govern your shopping rights when it comes to returns and disputes. If you’re buying direct from a retailer, you have more protections than buying from a person selling off the contents of their attic.

Add online marketplaces in to the mix and it gets more complicated as they are the not technically the seller – though the Competition and Markets Authority take a dim view of marketplaces that shirk their obligations. As I mentioned, dispute resolution schemes do exist, but bear in mind some are of debatable quality. Always check what your rights are if a sale goes awry – and check out your obligations for things like payments and packaging goods to post.

Business sales

Let’s look at what the law says.

The Consumer Contract Regulations covers online sales and gives you 14 days to change your mind about most purchases. There are a few exceptions though, like made-to-order or personalised items.

The Consumer Rights Act gives you the right to return faulty or misrepresented goods. Veteran vintage clothes shoppers will tell you that second-hand items will inevitably show a bit of wear and tear. However, the retailer must tell you about any faults or problems with the goods. Buyers should have realistic expectations and understand that the item will have been ‘pre-loved’.

Private sellers

According to the Consumer Rights Act, when you buy from a private seller the goods must be ‘as they were described’. Sellers can’t ‘misrepresent’ the goods, but they don’t have to list every fault either. So a Sony Walkman with a rewind button that doesn’t work should be just that.

The best way to avoid mis-selling – deliberate or accidental – is to ask for clarification, including pictures of the item and assurances that it functions as advertised, before buying.

Sorting out complaints with private sellers

If you’ve bought through an online marketplace, you are the mercy of the dispute resolution services. Many of the sellers I speak to argue that their customers don’t always have realistic expectations, or have damaged the goods on receipt to get a refund. Whereas buyers often argue that the item was wilfully misrepresented.

The website’s dispute resolution scheme should weed out any scammers. So that just leaves problems over the quality of goods. I find it pays to be pragmatic. If you just want a refund and the seller just wants their goods back, then agree a return, documenting the process with photos. Keep those emails or communications though. If you paid by card and a refund isn’t forthcoming, your bank might be able to charge back your cash.

Martyn James is a leading consumer rights campaigner, TV and radio broadcaster and journalist.


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