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Your rights when taking back unwanted or faulty goods

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Thousands of people will have received unwanted - and even faulty - gifts this Christmas. But few consumers know their legal rights when it comes to returning items to a store.

Less than scrupulous retailers may try to duck out of their responsibilities when goods or services are substandard. So it pays for shoppers to know the rules. Here's what you need to know:

If the item is simply 'unwanted'

If you get a gift you simply don't like and you have the receipt - or a gift receipt - most high street retailers will allow you to exchange the item for something else in the shop, particularly after Christmas. Legally, however, shops are not required to do this. It is unlikely you will get a cash refund for an item you simply don't like.

However, if shops do advertise a returns policy it will be legally binding, however, as will a verbal assurance from the shop. In which case, make a point of at least remembering the name of the sales assistant you speak to.

If you are returning an item under a returns policy, make sure the stuff goes back in its original condition. This means not taking off price tags and labels or remove the wrapping from CDs and similar item.

Faulty goods

Where goods are faulty the law is tighter. At its simplest, the law states that an item you buy must be of a satisfactory quality, as seen through the eyes of a "reasonable" person.

This means generally free from defects, as well as being fit for its usual purpose, of a reasonable appearance and finish, safe and durable. It must also be fit for the purpose described.

You are also covered by the Misrepresentation Act 1967. If you are told that an item would perform a certain job and it doesn't, its function has been misrepresented to you and you are entitled to your money back.

A trader may also be guilty of a criminal offence under the Trade Descriptions Act 1968 if he or she tells you something about an item that turns out to be untrue.

Misleading prices

Finally, there is Misleading Prices - Consumer Protection Act 1987. For example, if a flight shop advertises a return trip to New York for £25, but when you call it turns out that it never was available at that price, you can't make it sell you a ticket at that price. But you can report the shop to local Trading Standards.

Receipts and proof of purchase

A receipt is not required for faulty goods although you will usually be asked to produce some proof of purchase, such as a credit card or bank statement. The retailer may try to blame the manufacturer but it is in fact the shop's responsibility to compensate you.

Some shops may also say they do not have to refund faulty goods if they were bought in a sale. This is not true. If sale goods are faulty and this wasn't made clear in the store the customer is entitled to a refund. Signs in stores which say 'no refund on sale items' are also unlawful and should be reported to Trading Standards.

Credit card purchases

If you have paid for the goods by credit card (not debit or charge card), and the value is £100 or more, the credit card company has obligations to you, too, by virtue of Section 75 of the Consumer Credit Act 1974.

A principle known as equal liability means that both the credit card company and the supplier have the same obligations and responsibilities to you for the goods being satisfactory.

Purchases outside of the UK and time constraints

A court judgement earlier this year found that credit card purchases made outside the UK are automatically protected under the equal liability provisions of the Consumer Credit Act. The ruling apparently also applies to online credit card purchases made in the UK but from a foreign supplier.

If you do end up with faulty goods and you want your money back, you have to move fast. You should stop using the goods, immediately tell the trader about any problems, either by going back to the shop, by telephoning or in writing.

You have a reasonable length of time to examine the goods and check they are satisfactory. The difficulty is over what is reasonable: according to Trading Standards officials, it might be as little as a week.

Online purchases

Millions of consumers now shop online on a regular basis an estimated £5 billion has been spent online in the run up to Christmas this year. Shopping online can mean big savings - and a lot less hassle than trawling the high street - and the good news is consumer rights are exactly the same.

The first point to note is that all of the above laws apply just as much to buying on the internet as they do in a shop. In addition, if you buy something on the internet but don't like it once you've had a chance to look at it, you now have additional rights under the Consumer Protection (Distance Selling) Regulations 2000.

These give you clear information about the order and the company, a cooling-off period, protection against credit card fraud and the menace of unsolicited goods. You have the right to change your mind and cancel an order within seven working days.

For goods not delivered

A full refund should also be provided where goods or services do not arrive or are not provided by an agreed date. If a date was not agreed in advance then the consumer is entitled to a refund if goods don't arrive within 30 days.

Under European law online traders and retailers must also provide customers with an email address for direct communication.

Goods bought in sales

Finally, there is the issue of sales: a lot of people think that just because you are buying something at a discount - in a sale or even second-hand - your rights are less.

Not so. The same legal rights apply to second-hand and sale items. That said, you can't complain about anything that was pointed out or obvious when they were bought.

For example, if sale items are marked shop-soiled or ex-display, there is no point taking them back because you find that should have been spotted at the time.

You can still return them if they don't work, be they new or second-hand, although a court may take a different view as to how long you might expect a £50 second-hand washing machine to work, compared to a £1,000 item.

Useful links

Office of Fair Trading:
Citizens Advice:
Government-funded advice:

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