Wendy Knowler gets to speedy work.

Pretoria - Not too long ago, I used to get very defensive at the suggestion that I should be on Twitter; today I find responding to consumer queries in fewer than 140 characters an oddly exhilarating challenge.

Okay, I cringe when substituting “are” with “r” to make my response “fit”, and many times I give up and ask the tweeter to e-mail me instead.

Precis has its limits.

But the answer to the most frequently asked Consumer Protection Act question – on social media or e-mail – is indeed Twitter-friendly.

A typical such exchange goes like this:

Q: “Does #CPA require retailer to refund unopened goods bought in error with slip, 2 days after purchase?”

A: “No, retailers aren’t legally compelled to take back non-defective goods at all. Their choice, their rules.”

Now you’d think that if a concept is capable of being reduced to a tweet, it would be easily and widely understood by consumers, but for some reason, three years into the CPA era, this remains the most widely misunderstood aspect of the act.

Every day, without fail, at least a handful of consumers send me questions relating to the return of non-defective purchases. They think they’re entitled to a refund, when in fact the CPA doesn’t cover the return of non-defective goods at all.

Ruwayda Hardy wrote: “After buying a pair of shoes for my sister from a retailer, we found that the shoes didn’t fit her. On the till slip it states that they only do exchanges. Can they refuse to refund my money and what other recourse is there if I don’t want to exchange them for another pair?”

And, the same day, I got this from Phil Greenlees: “Two days ago, my partner bought a flip cover for my cellphone from a shop in Pinelands. I don’t want it and tried returning it, unopened, today, but the shop assistant says that their policy is no cash refunds. They will only allow me to exchange it. Is this policy legitimate?”

Actually, given that a store is not legally compelled to take back non-defective goods at all, allowing a customer to return a “change of heart” or unwanted purchase in exchange for a replacement or credit note is considered very fair. It’s a favour, not a right. Many consumers simply assume that they can take back any purchase, provided it is unopened and they have proof of purchase. Or, at the time of purchase, they ask: “Can I return this?” to which the assistant answers “yes”.

The consumer walks away thinking that means they can return the item for a refund, although that’s not what the assistant said. They later discover that an exchange or credit is not the same thing as a refund. If the item proves to be defective within six months of purchase, the CPA gives the consumer the right to choose the remedy, assuming, of course, that the problem was caused by an inherent defect and not by the consumer in some way.

That’s when the consumer gets to insist on a refund rather than a repair or a replacement or exchange. So, when it comes to returns, it’s vital to differentiate between defective purchases and non-defective ones.

In the case of the latter, you’re totally at the mercy of the retailer. You can’t force them to take back the item at all, and if they do, they get to make the rules, which almost always includes an insistence on proof of purchase and original packaging. Many limit the return time, and some stores impose a “take back” fee. It’s up to the consumer to take it or leave it.

At risk of confusing the issue, there is one instance in which a consumer may return a non-defective purchase for a refund. That’s if the goods were bought as a result of direct marketing – the face cream or hair-straightener you bought after someone stopped you walking by in a mall and invited you to sample their wares, or the fridge you bought as a result of getting a flyer in your postbox.

Direct marketing includes SMSes, calls to your landline or cellphone, e-mails or demonstrations in your home. If you change your mind about what you’ve bought after getting such direct marketing, you have five business days – a “cooling off” period – in which to submit your cancellation, in writing, to the company, and they have 15 business days to refund you in full.

Don’t be bullied into giving a reason for your change of heart – the CPA doesn’t require you to give any reason or excuse. You just get to change your mind, and they are legally compelled to accept that.

The goods must be returned at your expense, and if they need to be repackaged, the company may deduct a fee from your refund to cover that. - Pretoria News

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