While the Consumer Protection Act is unambiguous about returns policies, some retailers have an interesting interpretation of the law. But a refund is a refund – and retailers can’t dictate terms of repayment if you paid cash and want your money back

Many of us have been there: bought an item, experienced an issue with it, and the retailer insists on a voucher. They’re refunding you, in a sense, but forcing you to spend money in their store – even though they might not have what you’re looking for and you don’t plan to buy there in the foreseeable future.

The issue was recently raised by Claude Courtois. He had bought something from Stuttafords, decided he didn’t want or need it, and tried to return the item, only to be told Stuttafords “does not entertain” cash refunds – at all.

The events transpired as ­follows: “On April 22, I purchased a pair of denim jeans from the Stuttafords branch in Sandton City. When I got home, my wife had also purchased a pair of denim jeans for me, similar to those I had purchased. They also happened to be a lot cheaper,” Courtois wrote.

“As I preferred the pair my wife had bought, I decided, the very next day, to return the jeans I got to the branch where I had purchased them.

“I was directed to the customer service counter, where I showed them the denim jeans with the necessary dockets and slips (I had not taken them out of the packet) and I explained why I wanted to return them.

“To my shock, I was told that I would not be able to return it for a refund, as Stuttafords has a policy whereby they do not give any refunds.

“They showed me a sign on the counter that said they did not give refunds (in fact, the sign says they do give refunds… in the form of a gift voucher). Surely this is a contradiction in terms, as a gift voucher is by no means a refund? Is this not false advertising? It was the first time that I saw such a sign and this was not mentioned to me when I made the purchase.

“They said they would be happy to give me a gift voucher for the same amount, but they could not give me a refund.

“I said I did not need a gift voucher as I seldom purchased from their store, and that I would rather get credit on the debit card that I had used to purchase the denim jeans. They insisted they did not give any refunds.

“I took it up with the store manager and the call centre, who refused to budge on their ‘strictly no refunds’ policy. I was told they had received the blessings of the (consumer goods and services) ombudsman and that they were absolutely right to have those terms and conditions, as unfair as it seemed.

“Surely, this is an unfair practice, for a department store to absolutely refuse to give refunds at all? I certainly understand there must be terms and conditions to any refund policy, as most stores do have; however, surely there cannot be a blanket policy where no one gets a refund at all, under any circumstances?”

Well, yes and no. The ombud’s office hasn’t given any such blessing to their refunds policy and advised aggrieved customers to lodge complaints with them.

But Courtois’s reasons for wanting to return the pair of denims qualifies as a change of heart.

There was nothing wrong with them, they were purely unwanted, so Stuttafords wasn’t obliged to take them back. And their voucher offer was at their discretion.

However, their insistence that “no” cash refunds would be made is in violation of the Consumer Protection Act.

It says customers have the right to a refund, repair or replacement for defective goods. The blanket ban on cash refunds is in contravention of the act. And crucially, a store’s refund policy does not trump the CPA.

I connected with Stuttafords’ chief financial officer, Daniel Reichenberg, on LinkedIn and he insisted: “The Stuttafords returns and exchange policy is in full conformity with the CPA. I strongly suggest you research and obtain legal opinion on the Consumer Protection Act before publishing incorrect and/or misleading information to your readers.”

I countered that the CPA was unambiguous about the fact that if an item was unfit for purpose, the customer had the right to insist on a refund, repair or replacement.

CPA expert, Durban-based attorney Salina Govindsamy, told me: “Wherever the CPA entitles a consumer to a refund, it must be interpreted to mean that the consumer has the election on how to receive the refund.

“This means while refunds such as in-store vouchers or credits are not illegal per se, if the consumer demands a cash refund, you must give it to them. Also, in terms of Section 56, the consumer, not the supplier, has the election on whether to choose the refund, replacement or repair.”

Reichenberg maintained though: “Stuttafords has, in all respects, complied with the CPA. Should a return occur under Section 56 of the CPA (goods are defective, pose a hazard or danger, do not meet the standard set by the SABS and are not usable and durable for the purpose for which they are intended), Stuttafords is required (by the CPA) to replace, repair or refund the customer if certain conditions are met.

“Given that Stuttafords (a) does not sell products online, and (b) allows its customers to view, touch, test and fit its products (where applicable and appropriate), the ‘fit for purpose argument’ is not applicable to it under this section.

“Stuttafords will (in terms of Section 56) replace, repair (if possible) or refund (in cash) items that are defective should they be returned within six months of purchase with the applicable proof of purchase.”

I asked him why numerous customers were complaining via social media that they were denied their cash refunds, to which he responded: “I cannot comment as to what ‘customers’ are saying.

“Our returns and exchange policy, which is in accordance with the CPA, allows customers to return product (subject to specific conditions) within 30 days of purchase in return for a gift voucher that is valid for 36 months.”

Only thing is: the refund policy is not in accordance with the CPA, since Stuttafords insists on a gift voucher and the numbers of complaining “customers” are not insignificant.

He also did not explain why in-store notices read: “Refunds and exchange policy: we will gladly exchange or refund any item in the form of a gift card or account credit provided that: it is returned within 30 days of purchase; there is a valid proof of purchase (such as a till slip, account purchase slip or gift receipt); and it is in its original packaging or condition.

“Gift cards will not be ex­changed for cash and no change will be given. However, the remaining balance will be retained on the gift card for future purposes.”

Staff can’t be blamed for the disconnect between Reichenberg’s statement and their unambiguous store notices: no cash refunds, only vouchers or account credits.

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Wise up

Changed your mind? If you decide you no longer want an item – but it suits the purpose for which it was made – you don’t have the right to insist on a refund. You’re entirely at the store’s mercy, so if they decide you are only entitled to a voucher, you have no recourse.

20/20 vision: If you notice issues after you bought an item (it’s broken, damaged or somehow does not do what it’s intended to do), you are entitled to return the item within six months for a refund, repair or replacement. Barring damage you caused and fair wear and tear, of course.

Refunds… If you bought an item for cash, you can insist on a cash refund. If it was bought through your credit card or store card, it’s most likely to be refunded in that form.

Take the time: Before you buy clothing, try it on. Most of us are pressed for time and reason that if it doesn’t fit, we can return the item. Not necessarily. Be sure of the store’s returns policy before you buy a garment, because they could argue there’s nothing wrong with the item and you were at fault for not checking before you bought it.

And finally… If you suspect a store is in violation of the Consumer Protection Act, contact the Consumer Goods Ombudsman and lodge a complaint. Voting with your wallet and taking your business elsewhere is not going to do the trick – retailers need to be called out and taken to task for violating the CPA.