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There’s a big difference between a store policy which is based on law, and one which is essentially a service to customers. Predictably, many consumers confuse the two, believing that what one store does as a service is their legal right in all stores.

Which brings me to the Zara example. The fashion empire – 2 000 stores in 86 countries – opened its first South African store in Sandton, in November 2011.

During the festive season, I received a number of complaints from people who’d tried to return purchases, mostly unsuitable gifts, for an exchange or credit, but been turned away because they could not produce a store-issued receipt.

Natasha Toi bought a gift for someone from the Sandton City branch on December 6 and returned it on December 29, with a bank statement showing proof of purchase. “It still had its tags attached. I just wanted to exchange it for a bigger size, but they insisted on the original receipt,” she said.

Zara employees told Toi that a bank account statement was not the same as a purchase receipt, because “the data of the garment” was not displayed on it.

“Does the Consumer Protection Act protect me in this case and how do I go about getting my gift exchanged?” she asked Consumer Watch.

The answer is no, it does not. The CPA’s “implied warranty” only applies to defective goods. It gives consumers the right to return defective goods within six months of purchase for their choice of a refund, repair or replacement. Proof of payment may be demanded, but bank statements are acceptable.

However, when it comes to unwanted goods which are in perfect condition, stores have no legal obligation take them back at all.

If they do, they get to make the rules, and in Zara’s case, that includes presentation of the original Zara receipt, within 30 days of purchase.

Because most major South African retailers will take back “change-of-heart” purchases without the presentation of a sales slip many consumers mistakenly assume this is something they are legally entitled to.

“There are signs at the Zara check-outs, about having to product a slip, but I doubt that anyone pays too much attention to them, because their policy of ‘no till slip = no return’ is not the industry standard either locally or abroad, in my experience,” said Paul Skoll.

He was unable to return a shirt his wife had bought him at Zara’s Cape Town Waterfront store last month because she hadn’t kept the slip. Despite being an extra large, he said, the shirt was too small.

“Unless the staff specifically make mention of the fact that there can be no returns without the receipt, it will likely be overlooked by most,’ Skoll said. “It is easy to misplace a till slip, but the item had all the relevant tags still attached and was obviously in pristine condition.

“I thought that the CPA would protect consumers from this sort of thing. It was bought, in good faith, as a gift, and now there is nothing I can do with it.”

Skoll took the matter up with Zara’s head office, and got a detailed run-down of the company’s global returns policy in response.

As did Andrea Jamieson, after a similar experience at Zara in Gateway, Umhlanga.

Her daughter was given a Zara outfit for Christmas, and, being “unsuitable”, she tried to exchange it on December 27. Being a gift, she had no receipt, and was told she couldn’t return it for that reason.

Jamieson agrees that the signs at the check-out are not enough. “The staff should make a point of mentioning that there can be no returns without a receipt, especially at Christmas time,” she said.

Jamieson got the same stock response about Zara’s international returns policy as Skoll did.

I wrote to the company, suggesting that it wouldn’t be a bad idea to train cashiers to ask customers if they would like a gift receipt, especially during December, as a customer service, instead of doing so only if the customer requests one.

“We appreciate that as a global retailer in South Africa we may do something different from other local retailers, so we very much welcome your feedback,” came the response.

“In the future, especially during religious gift-giving holidays we will definitely consider implementing your suggestion at our stores.”

The company’s Spain-based chief communications officer, Jesús Echevarria Hernández told Consumer Watch: “All Zara customers are offered a refund, gift card or exchange within a 30-day time frame, providing the customer has a valid original receipt or gift receipt.

“As a general practice, the gift-receipt – as explained by our customer services in South Africa – should be asked for by the customer.”

Moral of the story: make no assumptions about a store’s returns policies, with regard to unwanted, rather than faulty products. Find out what they are, before you make that payment. - Pretoria News