My inbox tells me it’s time for a refresher column on the Consumer Protection Act (CPA) as it applies to returns, especially as most of us appear to be in the grip of the festive season spending frenzy already.
At the root of consumers’ confusion – and that of many a retailer, too, apparently – is the failure to make a distinction between returning something that’s defective, and returning something because it’s unwanted (an unsuitable gift, a change of heart, or simply the discovery that it can be bought cheaper elsewhere).
Here’s the thing – if there is nothing wrong with something you have bought, the store does not have to take it back at all.
The CPA only covers the return of defective goods.
Most stores will take back non-defective goods, but they are fully entitled to impose certain conditions in such cases, such as insisting on the presentation of a till slip, tags and original packaging, limiting the return period and offering a credit note or exchange instead of a refund.
To my mind, that’s fair.
But many consumers don’t see it that way. As far as they’re concerned, the CPA entitles them to a refund of anything they’ve bought, within six months, and that’s the end of it.
“Jeni” bought a set of two dummies from a specialist baby store after her baby threw his out of the car window.
But on returning home, she found another dummy, and as she hadn’t opened the packaging of the new dummies, she returned them to the shop.
“Only to be told, ‘no refunds, we’ll exchange’,” she said.
“I had nothing else to buy there, but they flatly refused to simply refund my credit card.
“Now I’m forced to buy something else from their store, leaving even more of a sour taste in my mouth.
“What are the rules?”
Simply put – no law compels that store to take back those dummies at all. If they do, they get to make the rules; in this case, an exchange instead of |a refund.
“Nazim” tried to return a birthday gift he had received from his wife to a store at the Gateway shopping centre in KwaZulu-Natal recently as he did not like the style.
In spite of him doing so three days after it was bought, in its original packaging, the store refused to refund him, he told Consumer Watch.
“They have instead offered a credit note to purchase any other item we choose at any point in time in the future,” he said.
“They also have a sign in the store that claims that they do not offer refunds on a purchase.
“I took the credit note and informed the salesman that this was against the CPA and it was incumbent upon them to offer a refund.”
He then spoke with the store owner. “He insisted that he had been on CPA training and they don’t offer refunds because we paid by credit card and he gets a 5 percent bank charge from the bank to ring up the sale and then a 5 percent charge to reverse the sale.
“He therefore cannot have a 10 percent charge for not making a sale. Further to this, he said his point-of-sale system did not allow for sales to be reversed.”
Those blanket “no refunds” signs are not CPA compliant, because of the distinction between the return of defective and non-defective goods.
A “no refunds” policy only applies to the return of unwanted but non-defective goods.
But if they prove to be not fit for purpose within six months of purchase, a consumer has every right to insist on a refund, provided they weren’t somehow to blame for the problem.
So all that supposedly CPA-trained store owner should have told Nazim was that the CPA did not address the return of non-defective goods.
And if his system really does not allow for refunds – how ridiculous! – he’d be on the wrong side of the law should someone return a defective product and ask for a refund.
The only time a consumer has the right to demand a refund for goods, which are in perfectly good order, but unwanted for some reason, is when they are bought as a result of direct marketing – that’s when a company initiates contact with a consumer directly, via SMS, phone call, e-mail or stopping them in a shopping centre.
In such cases, consumers have the benefit of a five business-day cooling-off period, but cancellation must be done in writing.
Bear this in mind when you’re Christmas shopping. Ask for gift receipts, and find out what a store’s returns policy is before doing the deal.
If price is your only criteria when shopping, be prepared for some unpleasant surprises when it comes to after-sales service.
And remember, if a store says it will “take back” an item if it is not suitable, it is unlikely to mean it will issue a refund for it, although this is what most consumers understand it to mean.
“Take back” means they will exchange it, or issue a credit for it.