You see the “no refunds, no exchanges” notices in the oddest of places: hole-in-the-wall shops in the CBD, cultural retail hubs, even in posh shopping centres.
But unless they’re declaring their goods as flawed upfront, they’re operating in violation of the Consumer Protection Act (CPA) by denying customers the right to a return, refund or replacement of defective goods.
You certainly wouldn’t expect an international brand to flout a country’s laws because they’re usually sticklers for compliance. Unless the brand is sold under a locally held licence.
Afzal Seedat wrote to me last month about a jacket he bought from Superdry, a British-branded “apparel empire” that is operated as a franchise in South Africa.
“I purchased a jacket from Superdry Sandton that was defective (the label was peeling off the sleeve).
“I returned the item and received a credit note as no refund would be entertained. I tried to redeem the credit note during their recent sale, only to be told that the credit note cannot be used on sales items.
“Is what they are doing legal? My argument is that it was not my fault their product was defective. Secondly, they did not have another size for me and they do not do cash refunds, hence I accepted the credit note.”
Seedat attached the correspondence from Superdry regional manager Cate Angus, who wrote: “I do empathise with your predicament and have spoken to my brand manager Craig Herholdt regarding your complaint about not being able to spend a credit note on sale/promo items.
“Even though you were issued with a credit note because you returned a faulty item to our store, we unfortunately cannot make an exception to our company policy with regards to the usage of credit notes on sale items.
“Below is a copy of our sale disclaimer which alongside our store disclaimer is visible at every till point in our stores. I have highlighted the point relevant to your situation.
“We take great pride in our service and quality of product.
"In the case of a defunct sale item, the garment will be assessed and Superdry will undertake to fix any minor defects. If deemed unfixable, a credit note will be issued as per the sale price on the customer's invoice.
“No credit notes will be accepted on sale items (and) no cash refunds.
“I am aware that this is not the favourable outcome which you would have liked.”
Superdry is super-right about one thing: they have a rather unhappy customer.
Seedat returned the jacket because the label was peeling off, which is the point of buying branded clothing.
They admitted the item was faulty, but then denied him his cash refund and then wouldn’t allow him to spend his credit note as he saw fit.
Whether or not the jacket was bought on sale, the CPA’s section 55 gives consumers the right to goods that are reasonably fit for the purpose they were intended for; are of good quality; free of defects and in good working order for six months (provided, of course, the consumer didn’t abuse it).
And if they’re not, section 56 says it’s the consumer who can elect to have a refund, replacement or repair.
That refund should also be given in the original payment form: that is, if they paid via credit card, the money should be refunded to that account; if they paid cash, they should receive cash; and if it’s a voucher, they can be refunded with a gift card.
It’s not for the retailer to dictate the terms of the refund.
I contacted Superdry about the matter, but they insisted they were fully compliant with the CPA.
Herholdt, Superdry’s brand manager for South Africa, said: “First, we are extremely uneasy with regards to the extent Mr Seedat feels disgruntled.
“We, as a brand, are exceedingly proud of our unrivalled service and ability to comfort our customers’ needs within a reasonable boundary (in most cases going over and above) and provided Mr Seedat with the utmost assistance with regards to his concerns.
“In reply to your below request, we are happy to provide insight into our terms and conditions applied within our stores and will assist with any communication you may need, provided our disclosure is kept between the parties involved only and your written response of acceptance of the here-stated request is received from yourself.
“Our terms and conditions have been set in place since the inception of Superdry in 2011.
“We have ensured that we provide the correct education to our customers as for our T&Cs both verbally and written. Our written policies can be found on both our till receipt and the front of our cashiers’ desks before and after purchasing respectively.
“Our T&Cs are clear and easily worded to help the customer make an informed decision before purchasing. We have set our T&Cs within the boundaries of the CPA and as regulated by our legal team.
"We have also ensured that we keep the best interests of our customers' needs in mind and in the same breath kept our business obligations controlled so that we can continue to provide a service.
“We have conformed to the Consumer Protection Act rules and regulations and believe it is the National Consumer Commission that can contact us should we be in breach of any standards set forth.
"Our Superdry terms comply with all conditions set out in section 56 of the CPA and provide either a replacement, repair, refund or credit note for any items deemed defunct by Superdry.”
But Superdry says clearly on its receipts: no cash refunds; exchanges within 14 days of purchase and no exchanges on sale items.
And Superbalist, the Superdry licensee in South Africa, says on its website: “We want you to be happy with your purchase. If you are not completely satisfied, you can return the product to us and we will either repair or replace it or credit your account, subject to the terms below. This policy applies to products bought from Superbalist.”
In the meantime, Seedat travelled overseas and took pictures of the refunds policy of a Superdry branch in London, which states refunds are given within 14 days of purchase and exchanges or gift cards within 28 days.
Superdry/Superbalist in SA weren’t budging on their interpretation of the act, so I contacted the holding company, the SuperGroup in the UK, which told me: “Customer service is very important to us and something we pride ourselves on.
“We work with a number of franchise partners around the world and require them to uphold our high standards of customer service.
“We are sorry to hear that Mr Seedat was unhappy with his experience and we will work with our South African partner to ensure his query is resolved satisfactorily.”
I raised the matter with Ouma Ramaru, the spokesperson for the consumer goods and services ombud, who said: “The only exceptions on quality of goods are goods sold on auction.
“The act does not differentiate between sale and non-sale items.
“All goods must comply with the standards as set out in section 55.
"If you want to sell goods that may have flaws in them, a consumer must be specifically informed of that condition of the goods and agree to accept the goods in that condition or knowingly act in a manner consistent with accepting the goods in that condition.
“If it’s a material manufacturer’s defect, a consumer would be allowed to insist on a cash refund or a replacement or repair at his discretion and the supplier cannot insist on a credit note.”
There you have it: if the goods you bought failed within six months and you paid cash, you can insist on that cash refund.
Don’t “buy” their insistence on a voucher or repair.
Feeling short-changed? If you haven’t got anywhere with the retailer or their head office, contact the consumer goods and services ombudsman at 086-000-0272 or email [email protected]
Provincial offices: The provincial consumer affairs divisions are effective, particularly in Gauteng, Western Cape and KwaZulu-Natal. You can also go directly to a consumer court (though they don't exist in every province), the Small Claims Court or even a magistrate’s court for non-CPA matters.