Return rights – is a shop telling you porkies?

Know your return rights

Know your return rights

I was scared enough just standing behind the grand dame in the queue. "Give me my money back! This is a disgrace!" she boomed. As for the shop assistant bearing the brunt of this verbal assault face on, her sin was having the temerity to refuse to exchange ‘uncool’ jeans wrongly bought for the lady’s daughter.

The problem with this store rage? The shop assistant was right.
Ignorance of return rights exists on both sides of the till.

Many wrongly get angry with store staff when they’re right. But equally, especially right now when millions are returning Christmas goods, we’re often quoted complete bilge too. 

So here’s a quick test. If a shop said the following to you, could you tell whether it was fact or fiction?

  • "Sorry, if it’s faulty, you need to send it to the manufacturer." This is nonsense. Your ‘contract’ is with the store you bought it from and it’s responsible for sorting it.
  • "You’ve changed your mind, so you can only have a credit note not a refund."  Take it – you’re doing well. It’s important to understand that if store-bought goods aren’t faulty, by law you have absolutely no rights whatsoever. The same applies if goods are the wrong size (unless they’re very obviously not the size as described).  Therefore when taking items back, what the shop says goes.
  • "No returns on sales goods."  Balderdash. If they’re faulty, you can return them, simple as that. What the store actually means is it suspends its normal returns policy, where it generously allows you to change your mind and swap or get goods refunded. (I’m not being sarcastic when I say generous – it is generous, as stores don’t have to do it).

    Sadly, some shop staff get confused by this – and think it applies to faulty goods. That’s not true. When goods are faulty, the shop doesn’t make the rules, the law does. And it says you can return goods.

  • "You can only return goods with a receipt."  Yes and no. You usually only need proof of purchase when goods are faulty, so a bank statement or other proof can take the place of a receipt. Yet if it’s not faulty, you have no rights. So if the store’s policy says a receipt’s needed, its needed.

    The same applies if the store says you need to present the card you paid with. Again, if it’s faulty, this isn’t true, you’re due a refund. But if the goods aren’t faulty, then if it says you need the card, you need the card as you’re doing well getting a refund anyway.

  • "It must still have the tags on it." This is false if it’s faulty. If it’s not, you’re subject to the store’s rules again. The same applies if they tell you it needs to be in the original box, and if they refuse returns on goods bought with a credit note.
  • "No returns on faulty underwear if they’ve been worn." Baloney. There’s no underwear law, you still have your statutory rights. Knickers to anyone who says different. 
  • "These are second-hand goods, so you’ve no rights." Nope, not true. You’ve exactly the same rights for second hand store-bought goods. The only difference is what counts as ‘satisfactory quallity’ is reduced, as by definition the quality threshold is reduced.

    So, if you buy a toaster from a second-hand shop and it fails to heat anything except the plug in the socket, expect reimbursement.

  • "I’ll give you a discount, but then you can’t return it."  A sales assistant quoted this nonsense to me once. Mrs MSE had spotted a jacket on sale I could wear for work; it was the last in my size but had a loose button. They offered a paltry discount and said “though then you can’t bring it back". Bunkum!

    As I politely explained, while this is correct for the button fault as I accepted it as a condition of purchase – it’s part of the unwritten contract of sale – if I later find out there’s an unnoticed armpit tear, all rights are retained.  See Shop staff quoting nonsense rights for the full story. 

This can all be boiled down to two very simple rules which everyone should remember. 

Rule 1

Faulty goods are ALWAYS returnable.
The shop’s ‘rules’ are irrelevant.

Rule 2

If goods aren’t faulty, you CAN’T return them.
Unless the shop’s ‘rules’ allow it, or it was bought online.

Online is different, because the Distance Selling Regulations mean you can cancel goods within seven working days, even if you’ve merely changed your mind. You can expect a full refund of the price and delivery charge (though some don’t give that, so ask).

This applies to most goods bought online anywhere in the EU via post, phone or online (the exceptions tend to be personalised goods and perishables).  These extra rights are a reason many now move to browsing in-store and then buying online (see Mrs MSE is a Roboshopper).

Time to be a ‘Sad Fart’ 

This is all about that little addendum to many shops’ returns policies that says "this does not affect your statutory rights". I translate this as “here are our rules, which you must follow, unless goods are faulty in which case ignore us and the law applies".

The key law here is the Sales of Goods Act 1979.  This should be compulsorily taught in schools, but isn’t. All shop staff should be trained to know it, but they’re not.  So instead, the savvy consumer must arm himself or herself with the knowledge.

To help, many years ago, I turned the rules into an easy mnemonic – be a SAD FART. I’ve now even heard it’s been mentioned by law tutors, leaving me proud at having lowered academic standards. 

When you buy goods they need to be…  

If goods fall down on any of these criteria, then under the law they’re faulty, so you can forget store policies and enforce your consumer rights.

This is pretty self-explanatory. But if you’re unsure, just ask yourself what a dispassionate, reasonable person would say to your argument that it wasn’t "as described".

For example, with speakers that work but don’t fit your iPod. they are "as described" unless the box or the shop assistant promised they definitely would work with iPods.

The one that confuses most people is "lasts a reasonable length of time". An example should help. If you bought a 10p whistle and it broke after six months, you’d probably think that reasonable, but not for a £5,000 LCD TV.  

That’s the problem – it’s subjective. The law lets you complain up to six years after buying, but it’s rare that things reasonably should last that long.

Free Shopping Return Rights printout to fit in your wallet

Your chances of till victories are boosted if you’re polite, assertive and, most importantly, you know your rights.  Stating "under the Sales of Goods Act 1979" and quoting the Sad Fart rules make a powerful point. 

To help you remember, here’s a free wallet-sized return rights pull-out.

You’re not always entitled to a full refund with faulty goods

You’re only entitled to a full refund on faulty goods if you’re deemed to have "not accepted the goods".  So return goods as quickly as you can – as a rough rule of thumb, within a month is usually safe.  

After that understand that if you are offered the choice of repair, replacement or a partial refund then that’s reasonable, so take it.

After six months, legally things get more difficult. Until then, the store would need to prove goods weren’t faulty when you bought them. After that, it’s for you to prove they were.

This gets complicated as ‘faulty’ can include ‘not lasting a reasonable length of time’, if something within the product when it was bought meant it wouldn’t last as long as it should. 

Ultimately, the court is the judge 

So now you know your rights and what happens if you return faulty goods. You’ve got a shop, er… banged to rights – and it refuses to play ball.  

Sadly that’s where it gets difficult. The only way to legally enforce your rights is in court. Unless it’s a big purchase, when you may want to aim for the small claims court, it’s often not worth it and it’s probably better to escalate it with the store.  

Politely ask for a manager. If that fails, play the ‘formal letter’ game – write to the head office explaining your disappointment, adding you’re willing to go to court if needed.  Often, the hassle factor helps your cause.

Ultimately, though, in my view we need a simpler form of dispute resolution for these type of things – something like an equivalent to an easy ombudsman service.

Meanwhile, though, tooling up on your own knowledge is the best protection there is.

This is an adapted version of a column I originally wrote for the Daily Telegraph in August 2012. For even more detail and template letters, see the full Consumer Rights – Give Me My Money Back! guide.