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Durban - I was browsing in the homeware section of my local Clicks earlier this week, when I saw a small red ceramic container with a lid. I reached for the lid, and the next thing I knew, it was lying on the floor of the shop, in five pieces.
I was mortified, naturally, and bent to pick them up. A store employee immediately came over, empathised, told me not to worry about it, and expressed concern that I would cut myself on the sharp pieces.
When I insisted that I pay for the broken item - R40 - she said that wasn’t necessary, and that if I wanted to buy it, I was to take an intact one.
Her handling of the situation was absolutely faultless.
Last week Diane Macpherson wrote to Consumer Watch to commend a staffer at Woolworths’ La Lucia branch.
Picture the scene: she was grocery shopping just before the store closed at 6pm, with her one-year-old daughter installed in the trolley seat, when the child suddenly grabbed the yoghurt six-pack her mother had placed next to her, and hurled it out of the trolley.
“It went splat on the floor,” Macpherson recalled. “One of the yoghurts split open, messing both the floor and my jeans.”
She picked it up and put it back in the trolley - away from small hands - intending to pay for it at the till with the rest of her purchases.
“The young woman at the roast chicken/pie counter - who had witnessed the incident - told me to put the damaged pack on the shelf there and take a new one,” she said.
As I did in Clicks, Macpherson protested that it was no fault of Woolworths and said she was happy to pay for the damaged pack.
“At that, she came out from her counter, whipped the yoghurt out of my trolley and disappeared.
“I was busy wiping my jeans with a tissue, so didn’t even realise she had done this, until she came back with a new pack. She insisted I proceed to the check-out and that the store would handle the damaged pack.
“I couldn’t believe it. What amazing service - and she arranged for the floor to be cleaned before I had left the aisle.”
Well handled, yes, and an example of great staff training, too. A spillage in a supermarket is a potential hazard, and if not cleaned up as soon as possible, the supermarket would be held liable for an injury suffered by someone who slipped and fell as a result.
But surely a consumer is technically responsible for paying for something they’ve broken in a shop?
Well, not according to the Consumer Protection Act (CPA) - not unless they were deliberately destructive.
Section 18 of the CPA - “Consumer’s right to choose or examine goods” - states: “Despite any statement or notice to the contrary, a consumer is not responsible for any loss or damage to any goods displayed by a supplier, unless the loss or damage results from action by the consumer amounting to gross negligence or recklessness, malicious behaviour or criminal conduct.”
In other words, those “Nice to look at, lovely to hold; but if you should break it, consider it sold” notices which gift shops used to put on their shelves - and still do, in some cases - are not CPA-compliant.
I pointed this out recently to the manager of a decor shop - part of a national chain.
She had written to me to ask for clarification on this issue.
“We have a lot of in-store breakages,” she said. “We have signage up stating if you break you pay.
“I don’t think anyone wilfully breaks anything - it is always an accident - so we never force the issue and only charge the cost price.”
While most customers paid, she said, “we have had some queries as to the legality of charging for the breakage. Please could you clarify what the Consumer Protection Act states?”
Well, there you have it. Unless a customer’s breaking of something in a shop can be put down to gross negligence, recklessness or malice, they can’t legally be made to pay for it.
The repercussions of occasional clumsiness on the part of people like me have to be built into the cost of doing business.