Money Mensch: Don’t buy excuses: your shopping rights

By Martin Lewis, February 25, 2010
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Too few people have a clue about what their consumer rights are, so stores trample on us and fob us off with cheap excuses. It is time to tool up your knowledge.

Remember your rights

It goes like this: "Goods must be of satisfactory quality, as described, fit for purpose, and last a reasonable length of time." If they don't, they are faulty and you have got a lot of rights. They apply to absolutely anything you might buy, even if it's in the sales or you pay using discount vouchers. I would strongly urge you to remember them, as, once you do, it's like carrying a weapon you can use to hit back at any store that tries to fob you off.

To make a stronger impression, learn to quote the law it comes from. With most goods that's the Sale of Goods Act 1979 and with services it's the Supply of Goods and Services Act 1982. I have designed a free, handy, credit-card sized print-out to go into your wallet, with this and more consumer rights tips. Get it at www.moneysavingexpert.com/consumermini

When you do quote them, be patient, polite and persistent. That last word is key, as shamefully many shop staff haven't been taught the basic rights that they should be before they are allowed to work in a store.

Now, while these rules sound easy, they throw up a lot of questions, so here's a quick Q&A to help:

● What is a "reasonable length of time"?

The best way to answer this is to think what a level-headed, "reasonable" friend would say if you asked if something had lasted as long as they would expect it to.

● What does "as described" mean?

On the surface this is obvious. If you bought a pink alarm clock and the box contains a green kettle, it clearly was not as described. It also covers more subtle differences. Imagine you were buying a pair of speakers specifically for your stereo. If you checked with the shop that they would work with your particular make and model, but they don't, then they were not "as described". However, if you didn't ask and there was nothing on the box indicating that they would work with your stereo, then it's your problem.

● I bought a dress for a friend but it's the wrong size. Can I take it back?

No, you have absolutely no right to do so. It is a myth that you do. Having said that, many shops have policies which allow you to return goods within a set number of days if they are in a reasonable condition, so while not a legal right, it is often allowed.

Better still, if the shop has a published policy allowing "no fault returns", then under contract law you have a right to take the goods back as long as you fulfil its conditions. Having said that, if the conditions say "we will allow you to return goods without a fault and we will give you a credit note", that is all you can expect. Don't think you can get a refund. If the goods are faulty, then you have full rights.

● How quickly do you need to take goods back?

If something is faulty, in other words it breaks the "rights rules", then return it as quickly as possible to maximise your rights. If you get it back to the shop within four weeks, then it's unlikely you will be deemed as having "accepted the goods" so you should usually get a full refund. After that only expect exchange, repair or part-refund.

The next key time point is six months. Return goods within that time and it is up to the shop to prove it wasn't faulty when it sold them to you. If you wait more than six months, you have to prove the goods were faulty when you bought them.

The final limit is the statute of limitations, which is five years in Scotland six in England. This is the time you have to bring the complaint against the shop. People sometimes wrongly think this means that goods must last six years. It doesn't, it just means that you have up to six years to go back to the shop to complain.

● If I was bought something as a gift, can the recipient return it?

Legally the answer is no, although many shops will allow you to. The contract is between the purchaser and the store, so only the person who paid for it has the right to return something that is faulty. However, if at the point of sale they wrote it down on the receipt (preferably a bit that the shop keeps) something like "Bought as a gift for Bob Smith", then the rights are transferred to the person who got the prezzie.

● Do I have fewer rights when I buy online?

Absolutely not. You have more rights online or on the phone or catalogue due to something called the Distance Selling Regulations. These give you a legal right to return goods within seven days even if there is no fault. You can return something simply because you don't like it, which is one big advantage of shopping online.

● Do I need to keep the receipt?

No, but it's sensible to do so. If the goods are faulty then legally all you need to do is prove purchase. However, if you are returning something under a shop's own "no fault" policy, then it will usually demand that you have a receipt and you should comply.

● Do I return it to the store or the manufacturer?

The store. Stores will try and fob you off, but your legal relationship is with the shop where you bought it from, not the manufacturer. The retailer must deal with it. It may choose to send goods to the manufacturer. If you've returned it early enough, ask for a full refund anyway. Your rights are with the store and it has to satisfy them.

● Do I have the same rights if I buy something from eBay?

Yes, provided you bought it from what's known as a "trader" - someone who makes some or all of their living by selling goods on eBay. If you are just buying from an occasional private seller, as long as the goods are as described then the only protection you have is to "let the buyer beware".

● Do I have the same rights with goods that came as freebies?

No, except if it was a freebie that came as an add-on to a purchase - in that case you have full rights.

● What if the shop doesn't agree?

If you know your rights and push for them, hopefully the shop will play fair.

Ultimately though, the final recourse is to take them to court. Before you do that, try a letter to head office. Be polite, firm and insistent, quoting your legal rights. If they don't give in, you may have to go to court, but even the threat of doing that may work. You could also contact Consumer Direct for further advice. A full guide on making companies play fair is at www.moneysavingexpert.com

    Last updated: 2:06pm, February 25 2010