Is the customer always right?

Well that’s it for another year then. Thank goodness. Christmas isn't exactly the most relaxing time of year. Cooking Christmas dinner for six, including one helpful vegetarian (me) in my teeny tiny kitchen is no mean feat; and then there’s the enduring mess of wrapping paper, boxes, ribbon, gifts without a home and various bits of half eaten food to contend with.

It’s not that I don’t like Christmas, although it’s definitely more fun when your gifts are predominantly Lego and dressing up rather than home fragrance and winter preserves.  But, as an adult, finding out that giving not receiving is the real pleasure at Christmas makes the whole process a lot more stressful. 

On the plus side, despite some room scent that is staying strictly in the packet, I don’t have any gifts to return this year.  However, I can’t be sure I didn’t give any that are sitting in a bag by the door waiting to be taken back to the shop. 

I do hope not, and not only because this would represent a failure on my part.  An unwanted gift requires a degree of effort from the unlucky recipient, both in masking their disappointment and in attempting to exchange it.  Because, you know, they don’t have any right to do that.

I don’t mean they don’t have any right to be so ungrateful, but that they don’t actually have any right to return something to the shop.  Surprised?  You are probably not the only one; it is one of the great myths of our consumer culture.  While it is true that the once hallowed legal principle of ‘caveat emptor’ (buyer beware) has been overshadowed by consumer protection legislation and a drift towards ‘caveat vendor’ (seller beware) the consumer, if king, is not always right.

Given how much we shop we really should know more about our consumer rights. It is beyond me why we don’t teach it in schools, it could save a lot of grief.  Even more surprising is why retailers don’t ensure their own staff know, although in some cases it is fairly miraculous if the staff manage even to know about the products they are selling.

In essence it really is very simple.  If there is nothing wrong with your purchase, and I mean nothing faulty, not that the colour of the tie doesn’t go with your shirt, you have no rights whatsoever.  No, not a typo, you have no rights whatsoever, at least not if you bought your goods on the high street (if you bought online you have seven working days from the date the item was delivered to cancel the order and return a gift, even if it’s just because you don’t like it).

So that over-the-top Christmas jumper, the CD you already own, the unwanted socks, the useless cruet set or the books on or by D-list celebs will have to stay at the back of the cupboard until next year when you can give them to someone else (ideally not the person who gave them to you in the first place).

Many retailers, however, understand the value of retaining consumer good will and have their own published returns policies.  These become part of the condition, or contract, of sale and so become enforceable in court.  Most enhance these policies for Christmas, for example, Marks & Spencer has extended its returns policy and anything bought between 1 October and 12 December can be exchanged or refunded up until 15 January.

One way to make life easy for yourself (and your gift recipients) would be to buy everything from John Lewis.  Other stores are, of course, available, but John Lewis has no set time limit for the return of unsuitable products, an unbelievably generous rule that applies all year round, even without proof of purchase. 

My brother-in-law, a plumber, has first-hand experience of this munificence.  He once went to fit a washing machine only to find it was too big for the space available.  The homeowner phoned John Lewis to ask for an exchange and one was promptly sent and the machine fitted.  It was only during the obligatory post-job tea and biscuits they discovered the original machine hadn’t even been bought from John Lewis.

It is worth remembering that even with a receipt the contract of sale is between the store and the original purchaser, so if you are buying presents remember to get a gift receipt, or write who it’s for on the original to transfer your rights.

You’ll know, if you’ve spent a lot of time queuing at tills, that a shop’s returns policy ‘does not affect your statutory rights’.  This is a not-very-helpful way of referring to the Sale of Goods Act 1979, which requires that the goods you are buying must be of ‘satisfactory quality, as described, fit for purpose and last a reasonable length of time’. 

Some of this is quite easy to define in practice:  if you buy a set of speakers and they work but don’t fit your iPod then you’re a bit stuffed unless the box, or the shop assistant, said they were definitely compatible.  This applies to sale or discounted items, unless any known defects were pointed out before you paid for something.  You don’t have to contact the manufacturer about faulty items, it’s the retailer’s responsibility, however much they don’t like it.

On the other hand, defining a ‘reasonable length of time’ is much more subjective.  For example, I couldn’t reasonably expect a plastic Hello Kitty house bought for under £10 for a three year old to last longer than a few months (or a lot less in our case) but I am holding out hope that the £120 wooden dolls’ house has more longevity.  

My greatest triumph was returning a pair of very expensive shoes after the leather split, about five years after I bought them and without a receipt.  Which just goes to show it's always worth a go.  Or you could save yourself all the hassle and just give everyone cash.  That way it’s their problem.

Posted in: Consumer rights

Expert legal advice you can rely on,
get in touch today

Please let us know you are not a robot