Are online stores selling you short?
More of us are buying goods and services online thanks to the seemingly endless choice, convenience and competitive prices available. However, because we can't inspect purchases until they've been delivered we have the right to reject most goods and services if we don't like them. Despite this right, certain retailers appear to be failing to give customers rights they have under law.
The Consumer Protection (Distance Selling) Regulations 2000 - DSRs - allow you to return the majority of purchases ordered online or by mail order and telephone if you change your mind within seven working days, starting from the day after you've taken delivery.
The DSRs also put you in the same position as you would have been in if you walked into a shop to make a purchase, meaning you can open packaging to look at goods and even get a demo before buying them.
Moneywise analysed the terms and conditions of 30 leading retailers. We found more than half were potentially breaching the DSRs by seemingly not giving customers rights they have under law. We found examples of retailers insisting on items being returned ‘immediately' or in their original packaging, both of which aren't requirements of the regulations.
Other traders stipulate that goods are unused and must be returned ‘as new'. This isn't always possible. For example, if you bought flat-pack furniture, you may not be able to tell whether you like the item until you've started to construct it. Likewise with a vacuum cleaner: how can you tell if it's too heavy or noisy unless you try it out?
The DSRs allow customers to test goods once they arrive and to return them if they are unsatisfied. Retailers should know this. The DSRs give you the right to cancel most purchases not made in person within seven working days, starting the day after delivery.
You must inform the retailer in writing that you don't want to keep the goods or services within this period. But according to the Office of Fair Trading (OFT), you don't have to return the items before the cancellation deadline ‘as new' or in the original packaging (except in the case of digital media).
The DSRs stipulate customers can change their minds about sales up to seven working days from the day after their goods were delivered. Yet, the Co-op misses out one vital component of this right. It tells visitors to its website that under the DSRs purchases can be returned ‘within 7 days of delivery'. This is wrong. You only need to inform the retailer of your wish to cancel the purchase within seven days. The DSRs do not stipulate a deadline for returning the goods.
The Co-op told us: "We apologise for any confusion regarding the terms and conditions on our website and have amended them to ensure that they fully reflect The Co-operative Electrical's practice for dealing with cancellations." Other retailers also fail to make a clear distinction. Currys states: "In accordance with distance selling regulations, unwanted products bought online can only be returned within 7 days of purchase."
Elsewhere on its website, the firm advises: "You are entitled to a refund as long as you return your goods within 7 working days from the day after delivery."
Confusingly the asterisk footnote states: "You need to return the goods to store, or contact us within the 7 working day period." If you missed the footnote, or looked at the other page's definition, you might believe you cannot return your purchase. Currys told us: "We feel our T&Cs, with regards to returning products, are clearly worded for customers and in line with current regulations. Our T&Cs clearly state that customers need to contact us within seven working days if considering a return."
The OFT has guidance for how businesses should interpret the DSRs. One key element relates to the timescale customers have to return items. In short, none exist. So companies cannot impose ‘a term making cancellation conditional on the return of goods would be inconsistent with consumers' rights to receive a refund'.
This appears to be contrary to the advice given by Lillywhites and Sports Direct on their websites, both of which insist customers return unwanted items ‘immediately'. Neither company responded to our request for comment on this matter.
Most of us rip open deliveries as if they were birthday presents, without any thought to whether we'd need to return the items we have bought in the same wrappings. Plenty of packaging is also condensed and put out for the bin men before the goods are checked. It's perhaps for this reason that the DSRs don't require you to return items in their original packaging, a point the OFT covers in its advice to traders when it states retailers "cannot insist that consumers return the goods as new or in their original packaging".
This isn't something all retailers have taken on board. We found numerous instances of traders insisting that goods must be returned with their original packaging. Argos, ASDA, Currys, Homebase, House of Fraser, IKEA, Marks & Spencer, New Look, PC World, TK Maxx and Topshop all require customers to return their purchases with the original packaging.
House of Fraser told us: "While the issue of packaging can be construed as a grey area, we believe that we do comply with the requirements of the Distance Selling Regulations."
IKEA stated: "We were in the process of actively reviewing these terms and conditions to make sure they were in line with legislative requirements. The updated terms and conditions are now published on the IKEA website."
EXAMINE THE GOODS
Eagle-eyed readers will have spotted that the OFT advice, quoted earlier, also makes it clear that consumers are allowed to examine goods they have ordered remotely, as they would be able to in a shop. This right is reinforced elsewhere in the guidance: "If that requires opening the packaging and trying out the goods, then they have not breached their duty to take reasonable care of the goods."
Some retailers, including ASDA and IKEA, go one step further, focusing on flat-pack furniture in particular. Given the DSRs allow consumers to try out products they purchase, there is no reason why someone buying a self-assembly kit of furniture or even paying extra for the retailer to put the goods together prior to delivery should not be able to view the constructed item and reject it if it's no longer wanted.
The OFT is clear on this point. Its advice to retailers is: "If disassembly is not possible, because for example, doing so will damage the item, then it can be returned or collected as it is."
One final point you should consider when you buy online is that the DSRs apply to the UK only. So if you buy something from a foreign online retailer, you are not covered by the same protection. However, EU countries must offer similar rights, and other countries also have their own version of the DSRs.
So when buying from far away, it's always best to pay by credit card. Section 75 of the Consumer Credit Act will cover you if anything goes wrong and give you your money back on purchases (between £100 and £30,000).
Used by the holder to buy goods and services, credit cards also have a monthly or annual spending limit, which may be raised or lowered depending on the creditworthiness of the cardholder. But unlike charge cards, borrowers aren’t forced to pay the balance off in full every month and, as long as they make a stated minimum payment, can carry a balance from one month to the next, generating compound interest. As the issuing company is effectively giving you a short-term loan, most credit cards have variable and relatively high interest rates. Allowing the interest to compound for too long may result in dire financial straits.