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Repair, replacement or refund? Know your stuff

I do have a small shred of sympathy for retailers and their suppliers when it comes to the Consumer Protection Act’s Section 56 – the bit which gives consumers the right, for the first time, to choose their recourse when something they’ve bought malfunctions in some way within six months.

For decades suppliers had the right to devise their own warranty terms and conditions, which mostly stipulated a repair as the only recourse.

Be clear: Game agrees that items should only be repaired if this is what the customer wants. Pictures: Siphiwe Sibeko / Reuters. Credit: Reuters

But in this new CPA era, they no longer have the right to force consumers to accept a repair. Now the consumers get to choose their remedy within the first six months – in the case of defective goods – and, naturally, many prefer to get a new item or their money back.

This means the supplier loses a sale and the broken, second-hand goods become their problem.

When it comes to mechanical or electronic goods, the act does allow the supplier to have an item assessed when a customer returns it, claiming it’s defective, so they can establish whether the problem is due to an inherent defect, or some form of consumer abuse instead.

There’s no recourse for the latter.

But I’ve heard of cases of appliances being repaired during that assessment process, despite the owner having said they wanted a refund or replacement.

Take the case of Hans Hiller of Hillcrest, KZN. He bought an Empisal sewing machine from Game in Pinetown for his wife about five months ago. The second time she used it, he says, it stopped working.

When he reported this to the store, he was told to take it in, and they would send it to the suppliers for assessment, a process which would take about three weeks.

He was not happy about this long assessment period, but he handed the machine over nevertheless, stipulating that he wanted to be refunded the purchase price.

Interestingly, the sales staff refused to accept the machine’s accessories which Hiller attempted to hand in with the machine.

Two and a half weeks later, the store contacted him and asked him to come and collect the repaired sewing machine. He saw red and refused to leave the store without his refund. Half an hour later he left without the machine and with the money he’d paid for it.

I’d taken up this case with Game’s head office and was awaiting a response when a similar case landed in my inbox last week.

Nicola Conlan bought an Empisal sewing machine from Game in Amanzimtoti on November 5, and the second time she used it, to take up a hem, she went through five needles – they broke one after the other.

She returned the machine to the store, and having read a Consumer Watch column on the CPA, she told the Game staff that she’d like to exercise her right to a refund.

She says a manager told her the machine would have to be taken in for assessment, which would take up to three weeks. Conlan claims the manager was emphatic that whatever the outcome of the assessment, she wasn’t entitled to a refund.

She was also made to sign what she termed a “repair document”, and like Hiller, the store’s staff refused to accept the accessories.

That’s when she contacted Consumer Watch for advice.

I contacted Game again, adding Conlan’s case to Hiller’s.

Responding, Game’s PR manager Shelley Kreinacke began by saying that Game was entitled to have allegedly defective goods assessed to ensure that there’d been no customer negligence or abuse.

A reasonable time period for this was five to eight days, she said.

That’s a lot more reasonable than three weeks.

If an inherent fault was found, she said, the customer had the right to decide if they wanted the item repaired, refunded or replaced.

“The item must not be repaired unless the customer has expressly advised that this is what they want,” Kreinacke said.

Quite right. So what happened in Hiller’s case?

Kreinacke said that when allegedly defective goods were handed in for repair at Game stores, a form headed “Assessment or Repair” had to be filled in and sent to the supplier with the goods. “The form Mr Hiller signed did not state that it was to be an assessment only,” she said.

“This was an error on the store’s side and is the reason why his item was repaired and not assessed.”

As for Conlan’s case, Kreinacke said her sewing machine had since been assessed and she would be refunded as requested.

No word on why that manager told her, before the assessment, that she couldn’t have a refund.

The supplier in question had confirmed that they complied with CPA regulations, Kreinacke said.

So remember – you’re entitled to choose your remedy if something you buy breaks within six months. You can’t refuse to allow the store to take the goods from you and have them assessed, but you must state your desired remedy upfront.

Make sure this is noted in writing, and a copy given to you.

You do not have to accept a repair if that’s not what you want.

Of course, after six months, the CPA protection falls away, and then you no longer have the right to insist on a replacement or refund.

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