Thanks to the Consumer Protection Act (CPA), South Africans are among the most protected consumers in the world.
That’s wonderful – in theory.
Of course, for legislation to have any real meaning, for it to give consumers a better deal in practice, it has to be effectively enforced.
In other words, if a company chooses to disregard the provisions of the act, the consumer should be able to complain to a body set up by the government to enforce the act – and know it will be investigated, and there will be consequences for that company, should they be found to be in breach.
The National Consumer Commission is that body, but I’m afraid, as many people have discovered since last April when the CPA became effective, it is simply not up to the task.
In many cases, consumer e-mails are ignored, calls put on hold indefinitely, faxes allegedly lost – in short, many complaints aren’t being taken up at all.
Just making contact with the body can be a challenge, as I alluded to in last week’s column.
I should say that many “suppliers”, to use CPA terminology, have chosen to comply with the act with regard to the return of defective goods by issuing refunds and replacements at their customers’ request, when they would have insisted on repairing the goods in the past.
But many are continuing to trade on their own terms, as if the CPA does not exist.
For example, in the Chinese malls which have sprung up in metro areas, most of the traders appear to be contravening one or more CPA provisions with apparent impunity.
I’ve received quite a few complaints from readers about stores in Chinese malls not issuing receipts unless they were asked, and refusing to accept returns or give refunds.
A quick CPA refresher: consumers don’t have the right to return non-defective goods. But if an item breaks, or becomes unfit for purpose, within six months of purchase you can return it for your choice of refund, replacement or repair.
But that didn’t happen in Alvin Moodley’s case. He bought a R350 bicycle for his son from Top Shoes in Durban China City.
When he wasn’t given a receipt, he asked for one, and was given a hand-written one, which states “no returns, no refunds, no guarantee”.
Two days later, the chain came off the bike, so Moodley put it back, but it came off the next time the bike was ridden. That’s when he took it back to Top Shoes, where an employee suggested that he could fix the bike if Moodley bought a part. Naturally, Moodley refused.
“I said we consumers in South Africa have the protection of the Consumer Protection Act, in terms of which he is obliged to refund me for the defective bike,” he said. “But he said it didn’t work that way in China City.”
Another man, who asked not to be named, bought two formal shirts – labelled as 100 percent cotton – from a retailer at China City, washing them both before wearing them.
While the one washed and ironed perfectly, the other one developed stubborn creases which proved to be totally resistant to a hot iron.
So he took it back to the shop and asked for a replacement, which he was given. But when he had the same problem with that shirt, he took it back and asked for a refund. The shopkeeper steadfastly refused to do so, saying he wasn’t prepared to take a loss on the shirt.
A stand-off developed and the store owner then asked the centre’s security guards to escort him out of the building.
“We’ve got this amazing Consumer Protection Act, but it seems some retailers are just blatantly disregarding it,” he said.
Security guards were also summoned to intimidate Marina Robertson when she demanded her CPA rights at a store in China Town, Milnerton, a few weeks ago.
“I had bought a handbag from the shop, and within a month, the lining had started to come away, so I took it back.
“The woman in the shop quizzed me about what I had done to the bag and I pointed out that I had used it as one used a handbag,” she said.
“She refused to either replace it or refund my money, despite my pointing out the law regarding defective goods sold in this country. She then made a cellphone call, whereupon two security guards appeared and started to shout at me.
“I left the shop without the problem being resolved.”
When she complained to the centre’s management, she was told that they had nothing to do with the business practices of the tenants.
“I finally had the bag repaired and have vowed never to purchase anything from a Chinese shop again – most don’t issue receipts and do not conform to the laws of trade in this country.”
Michael Canham bought his son a R350 bicycle in Dragon Mart, Parklands, last month.
As in Moodley’s case, within days, the side chain broke. “We returned the bike to the store, requesting either a refund or a replacement. The store owner, a Chinese national, told us very clearly that there was no guarantee on the bike.”
To be fair, there are exceptions.
Dianne Low bought a digital photo frame as a gift at Oriental City in Rooihuiskraal, Centurion, a few weeks ago.
It only worked for a day, and when her husband returned it to the store, the manager tested the frame, confirmed that the power supply was faulty, and gave him a new one.
To get first-hand experience of these trading practices, I recently visited two Chinese malls – China Mall Durban, in the old Wheel shopping centre building, and Durban China City in Springfield Park.
I bought an R18 pair of earphones from a shop called Easy Go, and when I asked for a receipt, I was given one with the following words on it: “No return, no refound [sic]”.
At another shop I bought a bag, and was given a receipt which doesn’t reveal the name of the shop and had no mention of VAT.
At a third shop, The God of Wealth Store, I was given a professional-looking receipt for my R37 purchases, with each item listed and priced.
At Durban China City, I bought a R50 scarf, and when no receipt was handed over, I asked for one, and got a hand-written one with no information on it other than the date and the price. Essentially, a useless piece of paper, as it doesn’t record what I bought from where.
I did get a receipt from Trumper Trading, but only when I asked for it.
I bought a selection of smallish items – not listed on the receipt – for R64. At the bottom of the receipt are the words “No exchange, no refund, no guarantee” and – my personal favourite – “no service”.
In one of China City’s passages hangs a red banner declaring: “Be Honest, Keep the Promise”. Well, there’s an honest promise – no service.
It’s not legal, but they’re getting away with it, anyway.
I approached two men in Top Shoes, the store where Moodley bought that bike. A notice above the paypoint declared, “No exchanges, no refunds”.
Having listened to my summary of what the CPA says on the return of defective goods, one told me: “All the stores here, no refunds…”
I raised the issue with then National Consumer Commissioner Mamodupi Mohlala-Mulaudzi. She confirmed that signs which stated a blanket “no guarantee, no refund and no exchange” were misleading, as suppliers only had the right to apply that policy in cases where goods were returned by customers because they were unwanted, rather than defective.
She also confirmed that the CPA required suppliers to issue receipts as proof of payment and warned suppliers that ignorance of SA law was not a defence.
Sadly, there was not a word in her response about what the commission intended to do about the apparent widespread flouting of the CPA in these malls.
So, two weeks ago, armed with more feedback from readers around the country about CPA transgressions by Chinese traders, I went back to the commission for a fresh response.
“In more than one case, security guards were called when customers stood their ground and demanded their right of return in terms of the CPA,” I said.
“Clearly this is an untenable situation… I would appreciate a statement from the NCC, about what, if any, action the commission intends to take in the interests of protecting South African consumers by enforcing the CPA.”
Despite sending several reminder e-mails, I have not had that response.
Clearly, we are on our own.
If you shop in places which offer bargain prices, but don’t issue receipts, except on request, and don’t take responsibility for defective goods, know that there’s a good chance you won’t get a warm reception – much less a refund or replacement – if something you’ve bought breaks within six months and you return it to the store.
If that’s a risk you’re not willing to take, avoid.
* As I was writing this column, I received an e-mail from Sue van der Walt of Tokai, Cape Town, describing the very best kind of after-sales service she had experienced.
She’d bought a pair of Salomon trail shoes from The Sweat Shop’s Claremont branch earlier this year. Having lost the receipt, she wasn’t sure exactly when she’d bought them.
This is relevant, because the CPA only obliges companies to refund, replace or repair defective goods within six months of purchase.
About two weeks ago, when Van der Walt noticed that there were small tears in the fabric in the crease between the foot and toes, she returned them to the store to ask if they could be repaired.
“Assistant manager Grant Bryant took a look at the shoes and immediately asked a colleague to check for stock of the same shoe in my size.
“Five minutes later I walked out of the shop with a brand new pair of shoes – the latest model.
“I wasn’t even asked for a slip or date of purchase. All they said was that apart from the tears, the shoes were in very good condition and they would ask the supplier to determine why they had torn.
“Their service blew me away… they have me as a customer for ever.”
What made the experience so special, she said, was that despite the store being part of a chain, “that manager had the authority to make that decision, which is an indication that good service is a standard policy”.
I raised the fact that many of the Chinese retailers appeared not to be charging VAT with Sars spokesman Adrian Lackay, who said the VAT Act was very clear – if a business has a turnover of more than a million a year they must register with Sars as a VAT vendor. Chinese vendors are not exempt.
He urged consumers who encountered “suspicious activities” among retailers to report it to Sars’s Fraud and Anti-Corruption Hotline on 0800 002 870.