Unfortunately this is one of the toughest situations for consumers to get redress, as the retail sector is largely unregulated, and has little in the way of independent arbitration bodies. In short, if you’ve got an issue with a good or service purchased on the high street, there’s unlikely to be an ombudsman to cover it.
That looks set to change, however, as Ombudsman Services (which offers its arbitration for communications, energy, property and copyright disputes) has recently made a move into the retail sector. Unfortunately this is currently voluntary for companies, so you’d only be able to complain.
However, if you feel a retailer or small business has let you down, or not provided the standard you’d expect of it, there is something else you can do – and that’s take the matter to your local Trading Standards office.
How to take an issue up with Trading Standards
• If you have an issue with a local company, you should initially call the Citizens Advice Bureau’s advice helpline. It is there to help resolve issues and support consumers.
• The Citizens Advice Bureau can contact your local Trading Standards teams to help ensure that issues are addressed.
• If you feel that your issue hasn’t been addressed, you can raise the case with your local Trading Standards via Resolver.co.uk; your communications will be recorded to allow you to create a complete case file.
• Trading Standards is able to take action against traders if it feels that the trader is breaking the law. However, Trading Standards will rarely intervene over issues such as contractual problems.
• The Local Government Ombudsman is responsible for independent assessment of your case, and can make a decision on how the issue should be resolved.
The aim of Trading Standards is to maintain a fair and safe environment for both consumers and businesses.
It might be worth looking at getting in touch with Trading Standards if:
• You’ve been misled by a trader into buying something you wouldn’t have bought if you’d been given all the information beforehand
• The trader has made false claims about goods or services that you’ve discovered aren’t true
• You’ve been sold fake or counterfeit goods
• The trader has used aggressive selling techniques, or persuaded you to buy something that you wouldn’t necessarily have bought if you’d been given free choice
• You’d like to find out information about a local trader, such as whether they’re still in business
• You want a professional opinion on whether you have an issue that you can get assistance with
What Trading Standards can offer
Trading Standards is organised in local networks, so what you can actually get from them can vary greatly, so you’ll need to do a bit of research. In some places there are drop-in sessions available for advice; in other cases you’ll need a referral from a body such as Citizens’ Advice. Furthermore, some will only take on cases in which the trader has committed a criminal offence.
• Advice on how to take action against a trader
• Mediation services to help you and the trader solve the problem
• Opinions about goods and services – for example, whether goods are of satisfactory quality
• Getting in touch with local experts, or informing you where to go to get goods tested
• Information about traders – for example, whether they’ve gone out of business
• Advice on what to do if a trader doesn’t have a proper credit licence.
Local authorities have limited Trading Standards resources, with primary consumer support provided by the Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB). The Trading Standards role includes regulating and dealing with:
• Descriptions. This includes ensuring that no false descriptions are applied to goods or services, such as an inaccurate mileage on a car, or a specific plumber claiming to be registered.
• Prices. Everything made for sale should be priced and, when targeted at consumers, should be inclusive of all rates and charges such as VAT.
• Safety. This includes responding to complaints and monitoring the safety of all products, from kitchen goods to children’s toys.
• Intellectual property. Trading Standards can respond to complaints and seek out counterfeits, such as fake handbags or clothes.
• Under-age sales. Trading Standards carries out test purchases at particular outlets, using child volunteers who attempt to buy alcohol, cigarettes, knives, fireworks or similar.
• Weights and measures. This includes checks on the accuracy of supermarket scales and fuel pumps.
• Food standards. Trading Standards can investigate false or misleading claims, for example examining food products labelled as containing ‘2% fat’. It also conducts inspections of supermarkets to ensure that food that has passed its use-by date is not on sale (this does not apply to best-before dates).
• Animal health. Trading Standards can take action against farmers who mistreat animals.
• Consumer credit. This includes ensuring that adverts for credit contain a true typical APR, and that agreements comply with the law.