Without a doubt, the subject I’m contacted about most by Times Money Mentor readers is disputes with retailers.

In fact, my recent column on whether you have to accept a credit note for damaged goods (you don’t) resulted in a huge response. Worryingly, many readers have since told me that many retailers – including some major international companies – are not following the rules.

This is a major concern of mine, because we have two amazing laws – the Consumer Rights Act and the Consumer Contract Regulations – that clearly set out the obligations all retailers in the UK have to us all when we buy their goods or services.

Yet in the last year I’ve seen a significant rise in businesses that either don’t understand the laws or are patiently ignoring them. This is outrageous frankly and if I can just get on my soap box for a minute, is a reminder why this sector urgently needs a regulator to enforce the existing rules.

Astoundingly, given the size of the retail market in the UK, we don’t have a specific regulator for the industry. Nor do we have a free Ombudsman service to step in and sort out complaints when things go wrong. This means people often have to threaten businesses with legal action if they don’t obey the law.

Frankly, none of us should put up with this situation. I’ll be campaigning hard in the coming year to change this. But in the meantime, here’s my guide to some of the ‘mistakes’ that retailers are making at the moment – and the truth of the matter…

The basic rules to remember

  • 14 days. If 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 perishables, items made to order and lots of travel related things.
  • 30 days. You are entitled to a full refund if the goods or services you have purchased online or in store are damaged or wonky, not as advertised or not fit for purpose.
  • Six months. If you go over the 30 days, you have six months from the date of purchase to return items for the same reasons. You must give the retailer one crack at repairing or replacing the item, then it’s a full refund.
  • 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 repair, then the onus switches to you to prove that you haven’t broken the goods.

I’ve been told I have to go to the manufacturer if goods are broken or aren’t working properly


This is one of the most abused aspects of the law – which is singularly clear on this subject. If the goods or services you buy are not as advertised, misrepresented, don’t work or don’t last an appropriate amount of time, then it is the retailer, not the manufacturer, who is responsible for sorting out the problem.

I was shocked to hear that some of the biggest brands in the business were trying it on with this dodgy fob-off. In fact, one catalogue company allegedly had this on their website, though they’d removed the wording by the time I got wind of it (I’d have named them if I’d got a screenshot!)

Sometimes, it’s not the shop, but the person you speak to (if you can get hold of a helpline number, that is). I’ve spoken to shop employees who have argued point blank with me that customers have to complaint a manufacturer. You don’t.

The retailer told me I have to pay the postage to return broken or damaged goods


Another major ‘misunderstanding’ this one. If the goods you have purchased are broken, misrepresented or just aren’t what you ordered. Then the business should be covering the cost of the return within the first 30 days. At worst, you might have to print of a label and drop the item off at a shop that processes shop returns.

This becomes more of an issue with large items, like sofas or kitchen sets. Again though, you should not be paying to return an item that’s damaged. Nor should a business be putting unfair restrictions on you, (arguably) designed to put you off.

One reader told me that a mattress she had purchased was delivered with slash marks through the packaging and in to the fabric of the mattress itself. How this had happened is pretty much irrelevant – the item was not even remotely usable. However, not only did the business insist that a return delivery charge was paid, they also demanded that she wrap the whole mattress in cardboard too. Needless to say, they backed down when challenged.

As a general rule, check items as soon as they are delivered (it doesn’t matter if the delivery firm has left). The longer you leave it, the more of a battle you face to get recompense.

Do I have to pay for an engineer to check out broken goods?


I’ve been coming across this one quite a bit lately, particularly with white goods like washing machines and dishwashers.

Because the cost of returning and replacing these items (and carting them about) isn’t that cost effective for businesses, many retailers and manufacturers are opting to send out engineers to check out the machines. That’s all well and good, but if you are in the 30 day/six-month time frames, you should not be charged for these appointments.

This often emerges as an issue when people have been brushed off to the manufacturer. So call the retailer, tell them the situation and remind them of the law. They should cover the costs of the repair.

I bought something from an online marketplace / third party retailer and they tell me I have to go to the business that sold the goods

(Mostly) False

In the last few years, we’ve seen an explosion in businesses that sell goods and services through ‘online marketplaces. This is where you have a range of retailers all selling through the one site. Think Amazon or Etsy, or a big online travel company.

This is a good way to discover a range of shops and services, but I’ve seen countless problems when things go wrong, particularly when it comes to refunds.

If you buy goods from a retailer that operates in the UK then they are responsible for policing their site and ensuring the law is being followed. They should not declining to get involved if there is a dispute between you and a seller on the site. Because the law was written before these businesses dominated the online market, interpreting the rules has been tricky, but the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) has issued numerous warnings to online marketplaces about refunds for damaged and misrepresented goods or services that have not been provided, so you can push back.

These firms should all have ‘buyer/seller dispute resolution services’ that set out what both buyer and seller can expect if a problem arises. In addition, epayment systems like PayPal and your debit or credit card provider, could potentially step in if a refund is not forthcoming.

I’ve been sent items in error or as a result of fraud and I can’t get my cash back


This is another growth area for retailers shirking their responsibilities under the law(s). I’ve heard from a wide range of readers lately who have told me they have been sent goods that they have not ordered or been debited for items that have been sent elsewhere and are clearly fraudulent.

Sadly, some businesses are insisting that full investigations take place before refunds are considered. Fair enough… within reason. But many of these investigations are taking half a year or more. That’s totally unacceptable.

The important thing to bear in mind here is if you haven’t agreed to make these payments, it’s not your problem how it happened, just the fact that you didn’t do it. So call the bank, card provider or e-payment service and report this as a ‘disputed transaction’. In other words, you didn’t authorise the payment. This usually results in either an instant refund or a short investigation followed by the return of your cash. Don’t get trapped in to a retailer’s interminable complaints process. Complain to the card provider or payment service.

One last thing…

The best way you can fight back against an errant retailer is to keep a copy of this article handy – and all our guides on Times Money Mentor – and send it over to the business when you make a complaint. It helps them understand that you know your rights under the current laws.

In the meantime, we all need to be vigilant about businesses that are ‘misremembering’ the rules. So get in touch and share your stories if a shop steps out of line.

Featured in Times Money Mentor – Martyn James


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