As a consumer, know when to give a retailer the boot

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As a consumer, know when to give a retailer the boot

Always interrogate a company’s returns policies before you buy anything

Consumer journalist

There was a time when, if something you bought broke, the company got to decide what to do about it. Mostly they chose to repair it, if they could, because that’s the cheapest option.
If the product wasn’t repairable, they’d offer a credit note, ensuring they didn’t lose the sale altogether.
Seven years ago, the Consumer Protection Act gave consumers the right to choose our remedy – refund, repair or replacement – if something we buy breaks or malfunctions within six months of purchase.That CPA warranty doesn’t apply in the case of fair wear and tear, and nor to consumer abuse or deliberate sabotage, naturally.
But an astonishing number of South African retailers still refuse to refund their customers for defective merchandise.
A repeat offender is Europa Art, a shoe retail store with 10 branches in Gauteng, two in KwaZulu-Natal and one in Cape Town.
Over the years several consumers have told me of their Europa Art experiences, each one a variation of the same theme.
In April 2012 Sandra Murphy paid R2,750 for a pair of Italian boots at the Menlyn branch. The first time she wore them the rubber sole began to peel off. 
She returned them to the store for a refund and was told they had to be sent to the Joburg head office for assessment. Fair enough, the National Consumer Commission is of the view that that’s allowed, to rule out user abuse.What a retailer or supplier can’t do is unilaterally repair a product during that “assessment” period, but Murphy’s boots came back with the sole glued back. 
A month later there were more quality issues, so she demanded a refund.
Again the store repaired the boots without Murphy’s authorisation and, when she stood her ground for a refund, she was offered a credit for 50% of the cost of the boots.
Here’s the thing: apart from the fact that Murphy should have been given a refund in the first place, if a repair fails within three months, or the goods prove unfit for purpose in any other way, the supplier may not repair the goods again – the consumer gets to choose a refund or replacement.
To cut a long story short, Murphy was eventually refunded in full for those boots.
In December that year, Sibusiso Masilela paid the Eastgate branch R1,800 for a pair of shoes to wear to a wedding. The day after that event, he noticed one of the soles was separating from the upper, and he got the same response as Murphy did when he returned them.When he persisted, he was told: “Unfortunately we cannot give you a refund, as the shoes have already been worn. If the shoes had not been worn, then we could have considered giving you a refund.”
That would be funny if it was not so absurd. Products seldom become defective before they are used.
A company spokesman told me the shoes had been abused because Masilela wore them outside and not only on carpet. This despite the fact that only one shoe had sole problems.
“The customer is more than welcome to collect his shoes that have been touched up with glue or if he is not happy with that we are prepared to give him a credit note,” I was told at the time. 
In late 2014, Thulasizwe Shangase said he’d worn his R3,490 Europa Art shoes just twice when two nails popped up on the inside in the heel area of both shoes.Again, his request for a refund resulted in the shoes being unilaterally repaired while they were being “assessed”.
Most recently, in mid-January Jonathan Nhiwatiwa approached me about his purchase of a R1,390 pair of designer sneakers from the Menlyn branch in November. 
“I only wore the shoes once on a business trip, and the sole of one shoe began to peel at the heels,” he said. He allowed them to be repaired but the problem reoccurred. 
He was then offered a R500 gift voucher as compensation, later increased to an offer of a full credit, but he declined, insisting on a cash refund.
“They say that have a no cash refund policy, which is not in keeping with the CPA,” he said. “They are taking advantage of the relatively small amounts involved, which makes litigation impossible for most clients.”
In one e-mail he was told: “Unfortunately we are not able to offer you a refund, as a sale item was purchased.  We are aware of the rules and regulations according to the consumer counsel (sic) and we are within our rights to offer you a credit note, as this is our company policy.”In fact, sale items carry the full six-month CPA warranty, unless specific defects are pointed out and a customer knowingly buys the product anyway. And the CPA trumps a company’s own terms and conditions.
I took up the case with Europa Art in mid-January, and six weeks later my promised response came in the form of an attorney’s letter, stating: “Our client is not obliged to deal with your queries. Our client will deal with the consumer directly in this matter.”
That didn’t happen.
But Nhiwatiwa had also lodged a complaint with the Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation division of the Gauteng department of economic development.
And happily for him, Europa Art chose not to get their attorneys to send that government department a “butt out” letter. 
His three-month battle for justice ended last Monday, when Nhiwatiwa was refunded in full.
Always, always interrogate a company’s returns policies before you buy anything.#SHELFIE
OLD NEWS This sign hadn’t been displayed for long in Shoprite and Checkers stores for long when the group withdrew Farmer’s Deli red Viennas after a batch tested positive for listeria. Tiger Brands has also added its Snax range to the recall list last week after “low levels” of Listeria were found in its Pretoria manufacturing plant.
• Contact Wendy Knowler at consumer@knowler.co.za or on Twitter: @wendyknowler

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