Cape Town - 090808 - Unconcerned shoppers walk past the scene of an armed robbery at the Sterns jewelry store in the Kenilworth shopping center. Picture Mathieu Dasnois

It’s a disgrace that some retailers continue to blatantly flout the most basic consumer protections provided for by the Consumer Protection Act (CPA). Harsh words, but justified.

The act’s section 56, which deals with the consumer’s right to return goods within six months of purchase if they “go wrong” in some way, is not difficult to grasp.

It’s very simple, and there is absolutely no excuse for store employees to be getting this wrong, almost 14 months after the act came into effect.

It’s supposed to work like this: all goods bought after April 1 last year come with what the CPA calls an “implied warranty of quality” of six months. So during those six months, if the product malfunctions in some way, you can return it for your choice of repair, refund or replacement.

The store can insist on proof of purchase, and has the right to assess the product to determine whether or not the problem was caused by consumer abuse.

But many retailers and suppliers are none too pleased about this, having for decades enjoyed the right to decide on the remedy, and, of course, a repair is their preferred remedy, because it costs them the least.

So, as reported in this column recently, there have been cases where consumers have returned faulty goods and asked for a refund, been told the goods had to first be “assessed” and then been phoned and told to come and collect the repaired item.

(To avoid this happening, stipulate your remedy of choice on the form you are made to sign when you hand in the item for assessment, and make sure you are given a copy of it.)

Others have continued to apply their own in-house warranties, as if the CPA either did not exist or did not apply to the goods they sell.

Consumers regularly tell me: “I took back my broken fan/heater/microwave, but was told that the CPA doesn’t apply to electrical goods.”

What rubbish!

The cellphone industry also believes that section 56 doesn’t apply to cellphones, insisting on repairing handsets that malfunction within six months rather than replacing them at the subscriber’s request.

In the past few weeks I have taken up three cases involving watches that have become defective, and in all three cases, the management of the stores in question have insisted that the watch owners had to pay for the repair.

In the first case, several of the diamantes surrounding the face of the watch that Sharon Brown’s husband had bought her as a gift from Edgars in La Lucia Mall had fallen off, ruining the look of the watch.

When she returned it, she was told that it would be sent to the manufacturer to be repaired, but she’d have to pay for it.

She then sought my advice, and I told her that not only did she not have to pay for the repair, but she could insist on a replacement watch, or even a refund if she wanted one.

She relayed this to the staff – and the store manager – but they insisted that only the watch mechanism was under warranty, not the casing.

To get her repaired watch back, they said, she had to pay R90.

I took up the case with Edgars, and the company responded by saying that Brown’s watch should indeed have been treated as a defective item in terms of compliance with the CPA.

“We have identified a training opportunity with the store associate and addressed these concerns with the La Lucia store manager,” Edgars said.

“The necessary refresher training on CPA will be conducted with all staff in this store.”

Edgars then offered Brown either a replacement watch or her money back.

Then came an e-mail last week from Keith Maharaj of Greytown, KZN, who had two remarkably similar experiences with two watches he bought for his daughters, one from Sterns and the other from American Swiss – both in Pietermaritzburg’s Liberty Mall – within the past six months.

As in Brown’s case, the stones on the face of the Sterns watch began to fall out, and the silver plating on the watch bought from American Swiss began to peel off.

Sterns said he’d have to pay for the repair, and he got the same story from American Swiss. The justification? Warranties cover the watch mechanism, not the strap or casing.

Both jewellery brands are owned by the Foschini Group.

Maharaj responded to both stores by saying that in terms of the CPA, he was entitled to a free repair, a replacement or a refund, but the respective management was insistent that according to “head office”, neither watch was covered by warranty.

The Foschini Group’s GM of corporate communications, Kathryn Sakalis, told Consumer Alert that the group strove to be CPA-complaint, and that all stores had “very clear procedures” to follow in the case of a return.

“Unfortunately the stores cited in this incident did not follow the correct procedure, resulting in the adverse customer experiences occurring,” she said.

“We have already taken steps to ensure that the stores are clear on the procedure.

“We have definitely not decreed that the implied warranty of quality does not apply to watch casings.”

Maharaj has since received a written apology and will be refunded in full for both watches.

The concern for me is that despite both Brown and Maharaj presenting the various store managers with the correct information about how the CPA works, they were still told they had no case.

Their head offices tell me that all staff have had CPA training, so what’s going wrong? Where are those store managers – let alone store assistants – getting their incorrect information from?

What’s disturbing is that these are among SA’s biggest retail groups. They should be leading the way.