Festive frenzy: Wendy's advice on returns

Festive frenzy: Wendy's advice on returns

Given that there’s a buying frenzy going on out there, many of the purchases being gifts, it’s the perfect time to issue a reminder about consumers are and are not entitled to when it comes to returning goods. 

Festive shopping

The first and most important thing to know is that if something you’ve bought is not defective you don’t have the right to return it at all. 

I’m going to say that again because barely a day goes by without me getting an outraged email from someone who’d been denied a refund for something they’d bought and changed their minds about.

If there is nothing wrong with something you’ve bought, you have no legal right to return it at all.

A defect is a manufacturing fault.

A product is not defective if you change your mind and decide you don’t like it anymore, if it doesn’t suit your decor, if it’s too big or too small for your body or your lounge, or if it’s an unwanted gift.

So try that pair of shoes on properly before you buy them - don’t get home and then decide they’re too small because, legally, you’re stuck with them. 

If a company decides, as a customer service - essentially a favour to you - to take the shoes or the top back, they get to decide on the terms and conditions. Such as - you must produce the till slip, you must have the original packaging, you only have a limited time in which to return the product - usually a month -  and almost always you get an exchange or gift voucher instead of a refund.

Sadly, for some reason, despite me and other consumer journalists going on and on about how this works, many consumers have got it into their heads that the Consumer Protection Act entitles them to take back any change-of-heart purchase and get a refund.

Customer query on returns 

Here’s a typical email, received this week: “Dear Wendy, I hope you can help me. I purchased a child's plastic chair from a baby goods store and paid cash. However the chair was unsuitable and I went back to return it. The manager refused to give me cash back and instead offered me a gift voucher! I declined this as I felt the shop was, by law, obliged to give me cash back. I would appreciate your help.”

The only help I could give was to point out that the store in question was actually doing her a favour by offering her a gift voucher to the value of that plastic chair.

Unsuitable is not the same thing as defective.

When something is defective - that’s when the consumer has a lot of rights in terms of the CPA.

What’s defective? Your phone’s screen goes blank, and not because you  dropped it on a tiled floor or in the toilet;  one of the seats of your new lounge suite collapses, your coffee machine springs a leak… If that sort of thing happens within six months of purchase,  you get to choose the remedy - a repair, replacement or a refund.

You don’t have to accept a repair if you’d prefer to get your money back.

The only time you can get your money back without whatever you’ve bought being defective, is when you’ve bought it as a result of direct marketing - so being stopped when walking in a mall, getting an SMS offer, an email, a call on your phone, a demonstration in your home. 

That’s the only time you simply get to change your mind and get your money back - because the company initiated the contact, not you.

But the vast majority of the transactions happening right now are not direct marketing related - they’re traditional purchases, so you or the person you are buying for have no legal right to return anything if it’s not defective.

As I said, some stores will take things back as a customer service, but their policies vary, so do not assume anything when it comes to returns.

What you, as a customer, should do

Find out if unsuitable gifts or change-of-heart purchases may be returned, and if so, under the terms are.

Keep your receipts, and if it’s a gift, ask for a gift receipt, which you can wrap up with the gift.

If you’re buying a gift from Zara, for example, you have just 30 days to return it, with its tags on, and you must have a receipt - they are absolutely adamant about that. Not receipt, no return.

Remember, they are not legally obliged to take back a non-defective item at all.

But I get a steady stream of emails from Zara customers complaining about this - Here’s a typical one, from Carla, who wanted to return clothing she’d bought six months previously from Zara:

“I admit, the tagged items were six months old; however, I had my receipt and again the items were still tagged. I didn't want money back, I only wanted store credit - but the store manager said that since they don't have clearance items in stock anymore, she can't accept the items. ZARA's return policy says they have the right to refuse items returned after 30 days.

How long is Zara going to last with that return policy? I think every consumer should boycott ZARA until they change it.”

Well, a lot of other stores would have to be boycotted as well, in that case, because pretty much all of them impose a time limit on non-defective returns, and they are fully entitled to.

Expecting a store to take back six-month old merchandise and issue a credit for the full amount, when they have no hope of re-selling old stock at the same price, is ridiculous. 

So, to sum up… know that if something you've bought develops a defect within six months, you have the right to choose your recourse - refund, replacement or repair.

But you have no legal right to return a non-defective purchase, not unless you bought it as a result of direct marketing. 

So ask stores about their returns policy before you pay. Get the specifics - the vague “yes, you can return it” doesn’t tell you much. 

And get a gift receipt if it’s a gift.

My wish for those who get gifts they don’t like this year,  or gifts they bought themselves and then had second thoughts, is Many Happy Returns.

Show's Stories