A return to the shops – but can you return your purchases?

6 min read
June 25, 2020

The gradual easing of lockdown has brought the start of shops opening across the country. Many shoppers flocked to their high streets last week for the first time in months. But in a phrase we’ve heard all too often in recent times, they have come back to a new ’normal’.

Those itching to get back to their favourite stores now face restrictions in numbers of people allowed inside – so expect queues that mirror those outside supermarkets in recent times.  Social distancing will also be a ‘thing’ in shops too, in line with the now engrained ‘two-metre rule’, and there is less of an opportunity (sometimes none) to try clothes on in a fitting room, or have a play with that gadget.

Often you’ll only be allowed inside on your own, so if you’re buying for someone else, you can’t be sure it’s what they want. And people will be less likely to browse and linger inside, meaning perhaps a rushed purchase that when you get it home, turns out to be completely unsuitable.

All of this adds up to a higher likelihood of needing, or in fact just wanting to return something after you’ve bought it.

Check before you buy

We’ve heard countless stories of stores refusing to acknowledge requests to return items or deal with customer enquiries, while there was lots of confusion as a result of ambiguous wording on shop websites around what to do to return an item, or even if they could.

That said, many retailers have recognised the impossibility of customers being able to take something back while their doors were closed and when the ‘stay at home’ guidance meant you couldn’t get to them in the first place. Lots have extended their returns policies. For some, the extension stands until after their stores have fully re-opened, while for others it’s a set number of days after you’ve bought the item. The point is, each retailer has their own policy, so check on their website, or face-to-face with an assistant if you are in-store, before you buy.

But where do you stand with items you’ve already bought – or intend to buy – now that shops are starting to open their doors? Here’s a rundown of your consumer rights to return items.

If you’ve bought in-store

If you’ve bought an item in a store, then (unless it’s faulty) you’re not automatically entitled to a refund if you return it – so if that top turns out to be a terrible colour on you, you may be stuck with it.

The good news is the majority of retailers do offer refunds on returns without question and their policy is usually printed on their receipt, which constitutes as a contract between you. It’s worth checking how you will be refunded – as you may be offered a credit note or gift card rather than a straightforward return of your cash.

If you’re returning something then the shop will almost always ask for a proof of purchase – so make sure you keep your receipt. Without it you may be stuck. A photo of your receipt may work but a retailer doesn’t have to accept that, so check in advance.

If you’ve bought online and want to return in-store

Buying online – or over the phone – gives you the automatic right to return an item regardless of the reason. This is because you have bought the item ‘at a distance’ so you haven’t physically seen or touched it. Under the Consumer Contract Regulations (2013) you have 14 days to return it regardless of the reason.

Aside from this, once they’ve received your return, the retailer has 14 days to refund you, including delivery costs. They only have to refund the cheapest delivery option however, so if you opt for a more expensive, perhaps more certain option to send something back, you may have to foot the bill for the difference.

These rights still apply if you choose to return an item to the retailer’s shop rather than through the post or by couriers, and many online stores with a high street presence offer this option.

If your item is faulty

Regardless of any good will that retailers offer on returns, if what you’ve bought is faulty, you have legal rights for reimbursement and they can’t ignore the law.

For starters, you can return an item up to 30 days after you’ve bought it for a full refund. After that 30 days if the item develops a fault, you have six months to return it to the retailer – and they will have to prove that it isn’t faulty or that you caused the defect. In that time, they get one chance to repair or replace the item, but after that you can ask for a refund.

The key to defining whether goods are faulty are whether they are of ‘satisfactory quality’, ‘fit for purpose’ or ‘as described’. It’s straightforward to claim that an item is not as you’d expect it to be when it was described to you, or if it is simply not doing what’s it’s supposed to (fit for purpose), but satisfactory quality is more subjective.

Simply deciding you don’t like something after you’ve used it may not get you far. But if it’s an item of clothing that rips after one wear, or a gadget that starts doing something it shouldn’t after a few uses, you can argue that the item is not of the quality you’d expect.

If you’ve paid by credit card

Even with easing restriction, many shops are refusing cash as a way to pay – meaning that credit (or debit) cards are the only option. But this is no bad thing – as if you pay by credit card, you are covered by perhaps the most useful piece of consumer law you need to know.

Under section 75 of the Consumer Credit Act, if you pay by credit card and you are entitled to a refund, you can potentially claim via your credit card provider. This is because the provider is jointly liable with your retailer for a purchase. We strongly recommend that you approach the retailer first, but if they don’t play ball, then this may be another avenue. The item in question must have cost at least £100 (and be less than £30,000) and your credit card provider must be based in the UK.

If you paid with a gift card

If you’ve paid with a gift card or voucher – which we’d encourage if you have one – then your returns rights will be the same as if you paid by card – either according to the shop’s returns policy or, if it’s faulty, your legal rights.

Many of us are still cautious about how safely we can shop, and nobody should be expecting the surge you may see in the run-up to Christmas, or the sales. Equally, customers may feel uncertain about whether they can – or indeed want to – make that second trip to return an item if it’s not suitable for them. We believe that retailers need to be clear on their policies and reassure customers on what they can do – which is the least they can expect in these current times.

If you feel you’ve missed out on the time you have to return goods because you weren’t sure, or you’re being refused your right to return, then make a complaint. Resolver can help for free.

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