Sometimes, the store is right to be a dick about refunds

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Sometimes, the store is right to be a dick about refunds

And other times, they’re just as clueless as you are, so this is what you need to know about your rights as a consumer

Consumer journalist


If you buy something from a shop and you later change your mind about it, for whatever reason, do you have a legal right to return it for a refund?
In the past week, I’ve asked that question to four separate groups of people, in different parts of the country, different ages, races and income levels, and each time I got a chorus of emphatic yeses in response.
It’s the wrong answer.
That experience, along with the right-of-return queries that land in my inbox every day, suggests to me that very few people have an accurate knowledge of their returns rights.
I blame the retailers in large part, for failing to put notices up in their stores spelling out the crucial difference between the return of a defective product and a “buyer’s remorse” return of a product that is not faulty in any way.
A notice that states “no cash refunds” is only half-right.
If a product is not defective, the retailer is not legally required to take it back at all, much less give a refund of any kind, but if the product proves to be faulty or not fit for purpose within six months of purchase, the consumer can return it and insist on a refund or a replacement – they don’t have to accept a repair, thanks to the Consumer Protection Act (CPA).
Why so few stores bother to put up notices explaining the CPA rule on defective product returns on one hand, and their voluntary policy on change-of-heart returns on the other, is mystifying and frustrating.
Often, it seems the retailers and their employees are themselves a bit hazy on how the CPA works.
When Barry Stein bought a pair of shoes at the Waterfront branch of Cross Trainer, he was told by staff that while they didn’t do refunds, they would be happy to exchange the shoes if he wasn’t happy with them.
Again, that’s only half the story – if the shoes become defective in some way, such as the sole pulling away from the upper – because within six months, Stein would indeed be entitled to a refund.
On hearing the “no refund” story from the store staff, Stein called the company’s head office. “I was told that if I am advised at the till point that there is no refund, it supersedes any CPA law,” he said.
Well, no company’s policy may legally trump the CPA.
The truth is the CPA does not have anything to say about the return of goods without defects. In other words, consumers only have a legal right to return defective goods.
If only both retailers and consumers grasped that essential difference, the confusion would disappear.
“I was under the impression that if goods are returned in the same condition in the original packaging with the till slip, a refund was obligatory,” Stein said, and it’s a misperception shared by most.
A few days ago “Thabang” from Bloemfontein paid cash for two pairs of Vans from Tekkie Town.
His buyer’s remorse kicked in within seconds of leaving the store. “I realised I couldn’t afford them,” he said. “So I immediately went back to the store to return them, but the saleswoman told me that they will not refund me.
“I am confused and terribly saddened. Is there any chance I can convince them?”
I had to give him the bad news that while they may choose to issue him with a credit note, even that would be a favour rather than a legal obligation, because the shoes were not defective.
Then there are the retailers who do the CPA their way or pretend it doesn’t apply to them at all.
A Cape Town couple paid R22,000 for a wooden dining-room suite, and when it was delivered, they were unhappy with the quality of the workmanship and asked for a refund.
They were told that wasn’t possible because the suite’s price had been discounted and because it had been custom-made for them.
Neither of those factors robs consumers of their CPA right to return a defective product.
The company has since agreed to refund the couple on condition that the matter is not publicly disclosed.
A shocking number of retailers tell their customers they only have a right to be refunded for a defective product if they return it within seven days of purchase. Again, total nonsense – the right to a refund on a defective product is valid for six months!
Cellphone outlets are notorious for that – insisting on repairing a faulty phone when the owner is legally entitled to a replacement device, or a refund if the phone was bought outright rather than through a contract.
So as a community service on this issue, here is my suggested wording for signs in retail stores.
NO REFUNDS ON NONDEFECTIVE GOODS:
The Consumer Protection Act only gives consumers the right to return defective goods within six months of purchase, on presentation of a proof of purchase. A more detailed policy should also be displayed in store – standing upright on a counter, for example.
RETURNS POLICY
NONDEFECTIVE GOODS:
These are “goodwill” refunds, as retailers are not legally obliged to take back nondefective merchandise at all.
If we choose to do so, at our discretion, the following terms and conditions will apply: We will exchange or refund products in saleable condition (not opened or used) within 30 days of purchase, provided the original till slip is provided.
DEFECTIVE GOODS: 
Should a product prove to be defective within six months of purchase, you may return it to us in terms of the Consumer Protection Act’s section 56. We may send it for technical assessment. If the assessment confirms a manufacturing defect, you have the right to choose the remedy – repair, refund or replacement. If you choose a repair and the product fails again, in any way, within three months of being returned to you, you may then choose a refund or replacement. From month seven, the CPA warranty outlined above falls away. In some cases, a manufacturer warranty takes effect, and their terms and conditions will apply.

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