Contrary to belief, you can’t return something you have bought from a store and demand a refund or even an exchange or credit note if there is nothing wrong with it.
The Consumer Protection Act only covers the return of defective goods, in which case consumers may return their purchase, within six months, for their choice of a refund, repair or replacement.
But there is an exception to the “no legal right to return goods if not defective” rule – if you have bought something as a result of a direct marketing offer, you have the right to cancel the deal, in writing, within five business days of making payment, or receiving the goods. And the company in question must refund you within 15 working days.
You do not need to provide a reason and there doesn’t have to be something wrong with what you’ve bought. You may simply change your mind, provided you do so within those five business days, and provided you note your decision to cancel in writing and deliver the goods to the company, physically or electronically, before that cooling-off period expires.
Why this exception? Because direct marketing – an SMS, an e-mail, and particularly a phone call or face-to-face encounter with a salesman in a mall concourse, or a demonstration in your home – tends to be fairly hard sell, and often catches you off guard, so the cooling-off period allows you to reconsider your decision.
If you decide to cancel, you must return any goods you’ve bought, at your expense, and if you’ve ripped off the packaging or consumed some of it, the company may deduct an appropriate amount from your refund to cover this.
But, as Kirsten Tully’s case illustrates, some companies simply don’t play by the rules.
In February, she and her husband allowed a saleswoman from Medizone in Lang Street, Kuils River, to demonstrate the company’s spa in their home.
They were impressed by what they saw, but daunted by the R12 700 price tag. Medizone sells a range of ozone health products, with teams of sales people based at some 30 offices countrywide, apparently operating as close corporations – in other words, each one is responsible for its own business operation.
“I was more interested in the foot spa, due to poor circulation in my feet,” Tully said, “but I was told that these were not in stock,” she said.
She buckled under heavy sales pressure and agreed to buy the spa product at a reduced price of R10 400. “Actually, when I was told the ‘promotional’ price, I asked for a moment to think about it, but was told that it was already being delivered to my house!
“But I wasn’t happy with the whole experience, and I never used it.”
Within the cooling-off period, Tully cancelled the deal in writing.
When she got no response, she resent that e-mail, and faxed it, too.
Finally, she got an e-mail from “Aletta”, the finance manager, stating: “I refer to your e-mail, we see you as a valuable client and have only act (sic) on your request. See invoice 11 February 2013.”
Presumably she was referring to the purchase and ignoring Tully’s legal right to cancel within that five-business-day cooling off period.
On February 27, having heard nothing more, Tully returned the spa, in its original, unopened packaging, to the Medizone premises in Kuils River.
“The office manager refused to sign acceptance, but I had a witness with me in case this happened,” she said.
And in an e-mail to one of the owners of the company, Alex Foster, she stated: “In accordance with the Consumer Protection Act, you now have 15 business days to return payment to myself.” And she supplied her banking details for this purpose.
She is still waiting, and her e-mails and phone calls have gone unanswered.
A month ago, Tully asked for Consumer Watch’s help in getting the refund which is her legal right.
I sent Foster an e-mail on April 9, asking how the company justified not refunding Tully.
The following day, he responded: “We have received your mail and and will come back to you tomorrow.”
He didn’t. More than a week later I e-mailed Foster again, querying his lack of response.
“Sorry,” he said in an e-mail. “I were (sic) off sick. I will give you a full report on Monday.”
That didn’t happen.
Later that week, I e-mailed Foster to say that if I hadn’t heard from him by the end of that day, “I shall assume that your company does not wish to avail itself of the right to respond”.
I haven’t heard from him since.
Tully has now lodged a complaint with the National Consumer Commission.
“If there is one lesson I have learnt from this, it is do your research, not only on a product, but the actual company trying to make the hard sale with you,” she said.
“No matter how much they push you to make the purchase, stick to your guns and tell them, ‘I will come back to you when I have thought about it and done my research.’ ”