Know your consumer rights this Christmas

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  • | by Rachel England

Ah, lovely. Another eye-watering jumper from Aunt Ruth. Just pop that on the pile of Christmas gifts you’ll never use. Now to the important business of setting up that new top-of-the-range electronic gadget you bought for yourself this year. Oh wait, it doesn’t work. Now what?

Christmas shopping is enough of a minefield without the added stress of dealing with returns, repairs and bolshy sales assistants, but there are laws in place to ensure that shoppers are satisfied with their endeavours, and they apply all year around. Different scenarios will demand the application of different laws, but broadly speaking the two pieces of legislation that affect shoppers are the Sale of Goods Act and Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations.

The Sale of Goods Act

When you buy an item you essentially enter into a contract with the seller of that item. Under the Sale of Goods Act 1979, that item must be:

• ‘as described’

• ‘of satisfactory quality’

• ‘fit for purpose’ – this means it must be able to fulfil its everyday function and also any specific function that was agreed with the seller (for example, specific electronics compatible with other items).

Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations

Since May 2008, the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations (CPRs) have been in force to help protect shoppers from suspicious salespeople and dodgy dealers. Underhand tactics, fibbing, aggressive selling and misleading advertising are all illegal sales practices and can be used against a retailer in the event of a returns dispute. The three areas the CPRs focus on are:

• Misleading actions, which includes advertising non-existent goods, lying about items or passing them off as other items (designer fakes, for example).

• Misleading omissions, or ‘the things that are not said’. Withholding facts and information from shoppers mean the customer is unable to make an informed decision about the purchase.

• Aggressive practices, which include refusing to take no for an answer, threatening behaviour, emotive sales speeches and ‘guilt tripping’.

Returning unwanted gifts

While it’s utterly hideous, there’s nothing technically wrong with Aunt Ruth’s carefully chosen jumper gift. Can you take it back? Unfortunately, there’s no straightforward answer. Unless the item in question breaches the Sale of Goods Act (above) or is faulty (see below), high street shops are under no legal obligation to accept returns. However, most retailers do have a goodwill policy that offers an exchange, refund or credit (and if they have such a policy, they must adhere to it).

A lot of shops impose a returns timeframe – usually 28 days (although many extend them around the Christmas period) – so it pays to act quickly. Returns guidelines are usually printed on receipts and displayed in the shop, so making a note of their policy can be helpful in the event that an ungrateful relative wants to take back the lovingly-chosen gift you’ve given them.

It’s common for the retailer to ask for proof of purchase in the form of a receipt before considering returns (although, providing the item is still in its packaging and in perfect condition, many will simply offer an exchange or credit note). However, your rights don’t depend on you having a receipt; you only need to prove that you bought the item from that shop – with a bank statement, for example. This can prove more convoluted, though, so it’s always best to keep hold of receipts, at least until you’re sure that Cousin Mark intends on keeping the comedy reindeer hat.

It’s worth noting that the laws surrounding purchases made online are a little different. Here, you have the right to return goods even if you just change your mind, providing it’s within the stipulated ‘cooling off’ period.

There are some restrictions on returning unwanted items, however, which means that unless the item is damaged or faulty, the retailer is unlikely to accept returns. These include:

• CDs, DVDs and computer games which have been opened and are no longer sealed.

• Items that come into close contact with the body, for example, earrings, make-up and underwear.

• Personalised and made to order items.

Returning faulty goods

If a product is faulty or broken, you have the right to ‘reject’ the item under the Sale of Goods Act, as it’s not of ‘satisfactory quality’. The law gives you a ‘reasonable’ period of time to do this, which depends on the product and the fault. For example, if you buy a pricey games console it’s ‘reasonable’ to expect that it will work for a long time – if it breaks down after a couple of weeks, it’s grounds for rejection. Retailers will usually offer a refund, repair or replacement. However, if they believe that the problem is due to something you’ve done to the item – and refuse to deal with the issue – then they must be able to prove that.

In the (usually) unlikely event that the retailer won’t play ball, there are other ways you can get the issue resolved:

• Check the manufacturer’s guarantee or warranty. Most items are sold with these, which are usually valid for a year. The manufacturer must do whatever they say they will in the warranty (which is often in tiny print, so check carefully). This generally involves a repair or replacement.

• Make big purchases with a credit card. Under the Consumer Credit Act 1974, the credit card company is just as liable for breaches of contract as the trader or retailer. Items in question must cost between £100 and £30,000.

If all else fails, there is a system in place that will allow you to take a claim to court, in the form of an Alternative Dispute Resolution service. However, it is worth consulting Consumer Direct first, which will be able to offer advice and guidance on your issue.