While clothing and unwanted items are easy to return to stores, slow-moving components, such as certain car parts, are another story altogether, as one reader discovered when she asked Nissan to repair her tail light. Picture: Cindy Waxa/African News Agency (ANA)

When Megan van de Linde of Newcastle took her car in for a service, the workshop informed her that her tail light wasn’t working and since it was a “sealed unit”, an entire new unit needed to be ordered.

She agreed - but it cost R5000 upfront on order, which is a fair chunk of change for a light. Something didn’t sound right though.

She took it to an auto electrician. Who charged her R70 to fix broken wiring. There was nothing wrong with her light.

Van de Linde was grateful that her R5000 problem had been resolved by a fiddling with wires that cost R70. But when she contacted the Nissan dealership to ask about a refund, she was told no because it was a slow-moving part, so couldn’t be returned to Nissan and therefore she couldn’t cancel the order.

That is not in line with the Consumer Protection Act. Under Section 17(2), a consumer has the right to cancel any advance booking, reservation or order for any goods to be supplied.

But the consumer’s right is not unqualified: the supplier may ask for a payment of a reasonable deposit and impose a reasonable charge for cancellation of the order or reservation. This does not apply to a franchise agreement or special-order goods such as customised parts. The tail lamplight might have been a slow-moving component, but it wasn’t special - and one would argue, at the price, many consumers would seek alternate suppliers.

On September 22, last year, the Competition Commission published the first draft of a new Code of Conduct for the South African Automotive Industry. A final round of feedback and submissions ended on September 11 this year, with the Right to Repair Campaign - founded by the Motor Industry Workshop Association and representing 2500 independent workshops, automotive aftermarket distributors and parts manufacturers - hopeful that a new code for the industry would be published early next year.

The Right to Repair campaign argues that consumers should be able to select where their vehicles are serviced, maintained and repaired, at competitive prices, in the workshop of their choice - without risking voiding their warranties.

Nissan reimbursed the reader R5 000 for the tail light component it ordered and that was no longer needed. Picture: Supplied

It says unfair restrictions on the sale or distribution of original spare parts must be removed, to allow greater consumer choice in choosing suitable spare parts for the repairs and maintenance of their vehicles.

About that tail light. Filum Ho, the vice-chairperson of Right to Repair SA and the managing director of Autoboys, the country’s first black-owned national glass and collision parts provider, said there was nothing distinct about the component for a 2013 model vehicle.

“There really isn’t anything too fancy about (the tail light). It’s just more or less a plastic shell with a bulb. The only thing that is electric about this is the plug which activates the bulb. There are no electric adjusters and so on in the tail lamp. We can buy an aftermarket tail lamp for R850. We would sell that for around R1100. The fact that they won’t take it back is the real issue. The fact that they hide behind their policy of not taking back electrical items is nonsense.”

I agree; neither had it been received, nor was it fitted. What’s the problem?

To Nissan South Africa’s credit, it arranged a refund for Van de Linde. And responded: “Ms Van de Linde contacted the dealership about a month ago and requested that NTT Nissan Newcastle order the replacement light. Due to the fact that Nissan SA had stock available, the light was delivered to the dealership within two days. It is important to note that this specific component is a slow-moving item and for this reason non-returnable for a refund.

“However, due to the history and the fact that we value the feedback provided by Ms Van de Linde, we have taken a decision to accommodate the request for a refund.

“Please note that this decision was taken outside of company policy and purely as a gesture of goodwill.”

Returns, in a nutshell

With Boxing Day/Family Day being the day on which many people either try to return goods to stores or mull over the unwanted loot they were given, now’s a good time to consider your legal rights of return.

The Consumer Protection Act’s section 56 gives you the right to return goods that are defective or unsafe, and receive a refund. You could also choose a replacement or a repair – it’s not up to the supplier to determine which remedy you select. If it’s a direct marketing transaction and the consumer decides to rescind the agreement during the 10-day cooling-off period, they need to return the goods with/ in the original packaging at their own risk and expense.

If the consumer didn’t have an opportunity to examine the goods before delivery, and they reject the goods for whatever reason (damage, quality, not conforming to the material specifications, unsuitability) within the 10 business days, then the supplier must not only refund in full – but also return the goods at the supplier’s risk and expense.

But when it comes to unwanted gifts, changes of heart or buyer’s remorse, you’re pretty much at the mercy of the supplier. If they entertain your claim – and they don’t have to under the CPA – they are entitled to determine the terms. When they offer a store credit, rather than a cash refund, you have no claim. 

And not everything can be returned. For public health reasons, goods cannot be returned after their expiration date, nor can certain safety gear and equipment.

The Code of Conduct for Pharmacists and the Good Pharmacy Practice guidelines prohibit the return/redispense of medicines and medical devices.

There are also no public regulations prohibiting the return of underwear or swimming costumes. The Consumer Goods and Services Ombudsman has previously offered guidance on this: where the goods are defective, the consumer is entitled to return them. But something not fitting does not count as a defect – unless the sizing is incorrect.

* Georgina Crouth is a consumer watchdog with serious bite. Write to her at [email protected], tweet her @georginacrouth and follow her on Facebook.

The Star