Do you know your consumer rights?

Published by Sally Hamilton on 15 June 2011.
Last updated on 27 September 2017

Being a savvy shopper or a smart spender isn’t just about shopping around and doing your research before you get your wallet out. If you don’t want to be ripped off, it’s also important to mug up on the law.

The rules protecting shoppers differ depending on how you shop, with online buyers offered additional safeguards, mainly because you can't inspect your purchases in advance. And for consumers taking out a financial product such as a loan or pension, there are cooling-off periods to give them time to ponder the financial implications of their deals.

Shopping in store

Under the Consumer Rights Act – which replaced the Sales of Goods Act in 2015 – you have 30 days to return any item that is faulty and get a full refund.

If more than 30 days have elapsed retailers must either repair or replace the item, but the consumer gets to choose which route to pursue. Should a repair not work or a replacement suffer the same problem, shoppers are entitled to either get a refund or get a discount should they wish to keep it. Alternatively you can always request a further repair or a replacement but the retailer is not able to charge you for doing so.

Importantly, if the fault is identified within six months, it is legally considered to have been there since outset, which means it is down to the retailer to prove otherwise, not you.

Consumers should also be aware that complaints about faulty items should always go to the retailer and not the manufacturer – it’s their job to fix the problem so don’t let sales staff try and tell you otherwise. Any guarantee offered by the manufacturer is in addition to your consumer rights.

What if you change your mind?

This protection only applies if goods are faulty. You are not legally entitled to a refund  because you have changed your mind or bought something in error. However, as a goodwill gesture many will allow you to get a refund if you have proof of purchase.

Different retailers will offer different returns policies so it’s important to check the store’s policy first. Some smaller or independent shops may only offer a credit note or exchange, but most will offer a refund if you return the item within 14 or 30 days.

High street giants Marks & Spencer and John Lewis both give customers 35 days to get a full refund.

Be aware, however, that even tolerant retailers may expect you to keep the original packaging and have labels intact or have other stipulations. Don’t just assume that you can return an item with no questions asked.

Some items may also be excluded from a general returns policy too such as personalised or made to measure goods, perishable goods and computer software that has been opened. That’s why it always pays to double check that new sofa will fit in the living room or that you’ve measured for curtains correctly before you put in your order. Make a mistake and you may not get your money back.

Sales shopping

Goods might be marked down in the sales but you still have the same rights if they prove to be faulty or unfit for purpose. Shops displaying signs saying "no refunds on sale goods" are breaking the law.

You may for example see a jacket reduced because it has a button missing, but if you get it home and find that a seam is ripped you are still entitled to a refund.

Watch out for any changes to a store's own returns policy during the sales period. Clothing retailer New Look, for example, gives shoppers 30 days to refund full price items but just 14 days if they were in the sale.

Distance shopping

If you are shopping online, over the phone or by mail order you get extra protection. This is because you aren’t physically able to inspect the goods before you buy them.

The Consumer Contracts Regulations give you up to 14 days after you received your goods to claim a full refund with no questions asked. However, you are responsible for returning the goods and may have to pay postage. You should also be aware that for some items – such as DVDs and computer games - the packaging must be intact.

Many retailers will offer longer than the statutory 14 days, but it pays to check first if you want to be confident of getting your money back.

Sports Direct and clothers retailers Jigsaw and Whistles, for example, all limit their returns policy to the statutory 14 days, online fashion retailer ASOS offers 28 days, while John Lewis and M&S both give customers 35 days. Clothes retailer Boden goes the extra mile and offers shoppers a whopping 90 days for quibble-free refunds.


Whether or not you are able to cancel your holiday will depend on the terms and conditions of your booking and in some cases your reasons for cancelling.

If you have not paid in full you are likely to lose your deposit. Alternatively you may have to pay a cancellation fee and in some cases may not get any refund at all.

You'll only be able to cancel a package trip if the content has changed significantly after booking. Sometimes you can transfer a holiday in the event of a death in the family - but not just because you changed your mind.

To cover yourself against a tour operator going bust make sure it's signed up to either the Air Travel Organisers' Licensing (ATOL) or the Association of British Travel Agents (ABTA), or a similar scheme which protects you against financial loss or being stranded abroad.

It is also essential to take out travel insurance – but check the policy’s small print on cancellation and curtailment.

If you pay for your holiday by credit card, and it costs between £100 and £30,000, you may be covered by Section 75 of the Consumer Credit Act and be entitled to a refund should something go wrong, even if you booked individual elements of your holiday yourself rather than a package.

You will need to contact your card issuer. If it rejects your claim, take it up with the Financial Ombudsman Service (FOS).

It may be more straightforward if you are only cancelling a hotel booking. Many hotels and hotel booking websites allow free cancellation, in some cases right up until the day before you are due to arrive.

Buying a car

When you buy a new or used car from a dealer or an online trader you are protected by the Consumer Rights Act 2015. This means it must be of 'satisfactory quality', 'fit for purpose' and 'as described'. Failure to comply with these rules means you're entitled to a repair, replacement or refund, as with any other product.  

If you buy over the phone or online you also benefit from distance shopping rules and have 14 days to get a full refund.

There is less protection if you buy privately. In these cases the car simply has to match the seller's description and be legally theirs to sell. As the buyer it is your responsibility to check that the car is fit for purpose and as described.

Phones and broadband

Always scrutinise the terms and conditions before signing up with a home phone, mobile or broadband provider so you are aware of your cancellation rights. If you are still in a fixed term contract it is likely that you will need to pay a cancellation fee.

There are some cases however where you can cancel your contract free of charge, for example if you are still within the 14 days cooling-off period provided if you signed up to the deal online or over the phone. Citizen’s Advice says that if you bought in person you won’t  get this cooling-off period automatically but the company may be able to offer it to you as a goodwill gesture so it is always worth asking.

It’s more complicated if you want to cancel because you aren’t getting the service you expect. In these cases it is best to contact your provider and follow it’s internal complaints procedure if your problem cannot be quickly fixed.

If your complaint remains unresolved you can then contact one of two resolution services, Otelo or Cisas, depending on which provider you use.

Financial products

Many financial products allow you to change your mind about buying without penalty, so long as you cancel within a set period. For credit agreements, such as credit cards and personal loans, the cooling-off period is 14 days. For general insurance it's also 14 days, and for life insurance and pensions, 30 days.

If you feel you have been mis-sold a financial product, you need to complain to the company first, and if that fails, seek redress from the Financial Ombudsman Service.

Mortgage borrowers can get out of a deal any time before completion, but you risk losing money if you've paid a valuation and certain other fees that are not refundable.

Once you have completed, if you want out, you'll have to pay the loan off somehow, such as by switching to another lender, and there may be early redemption penalties and exit fees that would make that option expensive.



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