Shopping, returns and your rights

7 min read
May 04, 2020
Online shopping, returns and refunds

Lockdown has brought it home to us all how dependant we are on certain goods and services. When supermarket shelves emptied, we hit the online order forms and crashed the websites. Now life under lockdown has given way to new problems as we buy things online to replace significant items that have packed in, or just treat ourselves (you’re allowed to treat yourself – it’s hard out there).

All of this has shone a light on some of the problems with shopping online. In recent weeks, we’ve noticed the rise of new kinds of complaints. In the last week alone, countless people have got in touch to say that while some retailers are selling goods, they’re less than able or willing to deal with returns or answer customer service enquiries.

Complaints about online shopping have doubled in just the last few weeks and quadrupled since back in February, with delivery problems and refunds dominating the things that people are contacting Resolver about. And that latter category is a worry – because if a retailer has the inclination to sell something, it should also have the resources to resolve a problem with it.

The good news is your consumer rights haven’t changed when it comes to goods and services bought online. But the pandemic has brought new situations in to play, with positives like extended return times to negatives like shops not letting you send things back.

Here’s an overview of your rights and a look at some of the newer problems the pandemic has brought.

Online and In-store shopping

Complaints about retailers, both online and on the high street are the third and fourth most commonly complained about products and services that Resolver gets asked to help sort out.

There are a huge range of complaints when it comes to retailers, but the biggest bugbear for us and for everyone is the fact that there are lots of rules that give people power, but many businesses ignore them, interpret them in their own favour or occasionally misinform people.

We’ve seen websites that mislead people about their rights to return items, delivery disputes that shift the blame, warranties and service contracts that aren’t worth the paper they’re written on and credit agreements that hide the true cost of borrowing. If you spot things like this, let us know!

Shopping and returns – a guide

Where do my basic shopping rights come from?

  • The Consumer Rights Act (which came in to play on 01 October 2015) gives you the bulk of your shopping rights. For items bought prior to the act, it’s the Sale of Goods Act (1979)
  • The act covers goods and services (including digital goods) and whether they are ‘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 go wrong.

What are my rights if I want to return a purchase but there’s nothing wrong with it?

  • The good news is if the item was bought online or on the phone then you have 14 days to return it under the Consumer Contract Regulations 2013. In-store is different though and will depend on the shop’s policy.

When do I get the money?

  • Aside from your rights buying goods online, 14 is a useful number to remember. 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 (but they only have to pay the cheapest option available, so you might end up covering the difference).

What if I bought the item in-store?

  • These rules don’t extend to items bought in store, though you have a number of rights for faulty or misrepresented items. Some stores do allow you to return items with gift receipts. A gift receipt is basically an additional receipt provided by the retailer with the price not included, so you can return and exchange items. You don’t need to be the gift-giver to redeem a gift receipt, but the retailer can set the terms if the item isn’t faulty. Shops can ask you to produce a receipt so hold on to it. The jury is out on whether a photo of a receipt counts, so speak to the store before you go in to avoid an argument over the tills.

What if the goods are faulty?

  • You’ve got lots of rights when it comes to goods or services that don’t work. However, there are certain time limits you need to bear in mind.
  • The rules (in this case, the Consumer Rights Act 2015) say that you have 30 days from the date the goods were purchased to return the item if it’s wonky or isn’t as it was described.
  • You’re entitled to a full refund if the goods are returned within 30 days. Bear in mind it will go in to the account of the person returning it, so if the goods were purchased online, the person who bought the gift will need to organise the refund.

What if it’s over the 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 wonky or refund you. 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 as part of their deal to keep you as a loyal customer. Many stores have increased their timescales for returning goods, but don’t be complacent. Check before/after you order and pop the date in your diary a few weeks before it’s due.

What if the provider of goods or services says the item isn’t faulty?

  • The key thing here is whether the goods are ‘satisfactory quality’, ‘fit for purpose’ or ‘as described’. The latter option is pretty straightforward. Compare the item’s description with what you’ve got and if it’s misleading (not as described), make a complaint.
  • ‘Fit for purpose’ is important to remember because you might not realise an item isn’t doing what it’s supposed to be doing until you’ve started using it – which might be some time after it was purchased. So if you’ve ordered blackout curtains that don’t actually black out the light, then you can argue they’re not fit for purpose.
  • ‘Satisfactory quality’ is pretty subjective. To give you an example, if you go to a restaurant and don’t like your food after eating it all you’re not going to get very far. But if you’d asked in advance for a vegetarian option but one isn’t provided when you arrive, then you clearly haven’t been given what you wanted.
  • So a good starting point is asking ‘does it do what it says on the tin?’ If not, take the time to explain why you haven’t got what you thought you were getting.

COVID 19 and your rights

All these rights are great, but the pandemic has turned everything on its head. How are you supposed to return goods if your post office is closed? What if the firm isn’t accepting returns? And what do you do if you’re shielding?

It’s come to our attention that some stores have changed their returns policies. This probably hasn’t been done for sinister reasons – it’s more a lack of staff to process and manage the returns. But because the wording on some websites is so opaque and confusing, it’s not instilling confidence.

Worse, some firms have worded things in such a way that it implies that your right to return has been officially stopped. It hasn’t, the firm is just saying it can’t deal with it now.

We believe that a business that can sell you stuff should also be able to take it back, but leaving that aside, your right to return should not be affected by this. The timescales in this article still apply but should have been extended so you know when you can return items and get refunds.

Many shops say they’ll do this when they reopen, but details are vague. We expect them to be reasonable about your personal circumstances.

If you’re concerned about a return or refund, contact the firm and explain your circumstances and ask them to go through your options. If their website is unclear then get a written response by email or even text if you can.

If you feel you’ve missed out on the time you have to return goods due to not being informed by the business, you have the right to make a complaint. Resolver can help for free: https://www.resolver.co.uk/

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