Understanding your consumer rights
Sure, understanding your rights as a consumer can be a bore. But what if knowing the facts could save you a bomb, and protect you from being ripped off?Whether you're considering making a purchase or looking at making a complaint, you need to come armed with the facts when it comes to knowing what your rights are as a consumer.
Unfortunately, they don't teach you this stuff at school, and it can be a bit of a minefield - so we're here to tell you straight!
From nailing just the basic principles, to making it sound like you swallowed a chunk of legal documents, we've included everything you need to know in this guide. You'll never be taken for a mug again!
What's on this page
Before you start getting into the nooks and crannies of this stuff, it's important to know what your basic rights are when spending your cash.
In October 2015, the Consumer Rights Act was modernised in order to fit the world of online shopping.
By combining three separate Acts (the Sale of Goods Act, Unfair Terms in Consumer Contracts Regulations and the Supply of Goods and Services Act), the 2015 Consumer Rights Act was created in order make the rules clearer and easier to follow.
How it works
Every time that you buy something from a seller, you enter into a contract where they agree to provide your 'statutory rights'. This is the law and is separate from a company's own returns policy, even if they try to tell you otherwise.
As an example, the sign above breaches Consumer Rights law, as it implies that even if you buy an item that's on sale and it turns out to be faulty, you wouldn't be entitled to exchange or refund. This is not the case - the same rules apply, whether they're on sale or not.
The basic law of agreement between buyer and seller is that all goods must be:
Fit for purpose
Put simply, this means that any item you've bought must do what it's meant to (and not fall apart within minutes of using/wearing).
If you buy a new set of speakers from a salesman who tells you they'll work on your TV and when you get home you find that they don't, you're entitled to a refund.
Be careful though - if you make the mistake yourself and buy a certain set of speakers that don't work with your TV, you won't necessarily be entitled to a refund (they may only offer exchange if that's their policy).
Of satisfactory quality
Goods should never be damaged or faulty when you purchase them - unless, of course, a prior agreement has been made between you and the seller in order to receive a discount (for example, you agree to buying a jacket with a missing button in exchange for a 10% discount - this will be marked on your receipt).
It's all very well and good being reassured that your purchases are supposed to last for a 'reasonable' amount of time, but what does this really mean in practice?
This is where you have to use your common sense. A £30 bicycle pump would be expected to last well over a year, whereas opting for a £5 pump is likely to have a comparatively shorter life span.
Something is classed as satisfactory if a 'reasonable' person would describe it as fit for use, depending on the item and the price that you bought it for. So if you managed to get an iPad for just £40, the 'satisfactory' quality expected would be pretty low.
This is a pretty simple one to get your head around and should (in theory!) be easy for sellers to respect. Selling something that's not as described (so this is particularly relevant to online purchases) is against the law.
If you buy a tablet computer that states on the box that it's white, but you get home and find out that the product is black, you are entitled to a full refund.
Although this isn't really an example where you'd be getting less for your money, the important thing is that it's not the exact item you spent your money on.
In relation to clothing, you can get a refund on anything from an incorrectly advertised material to something as simple as the colour.
If the product was bought in the UK or EU and does not meet these standards, you should be entitled to a refund, exchange or repair. This law covers sale and reduced items, too.
How long do I have to claim?
Before you start collecting up your purchases from over five years ago to see if they're 'satisfactory', it's worth knowing your time limits for requesting a full refund in the eyes of the law.
- Within 30 days: You can expect to receive a full refund on any goods that don't meet the above criteria. After this time is over, you may not be eligible for a full refund and could get an exchange, part-refund or repair instead.
- Within six months: The retailer or seller has to prove that the item was not faulty at the time of purchase, otherwise they have to repair or replace the item. If repair or replacement isn't an option, you're entitled to a full refund.
- More than six months: After the six month mark, it's up to you to prove the fault was there at the time of purchase/ delivery - which can be very difficult!
What about services?
Although there is an obvious difference between purchasing goods and paying for a service, the Consumer Rights Act applies to these too (it's just worded a bit differently to suit the differing situation).
A 'service' covers anything you pay for that requires the skill of another, be it a massage, a haircut, or a dry cleaner getting a stain out your favourite coat.
The main criteria for services is the following:
- The service must be provided with 'reasonable' care and skill
- If the price isn't agreed beforehand, it should be 'reasonable'
- If the timescale of the service isn't agreed on beforehand, it should be done within 'reasonable' time
- Any information written down or said is binding (so if a price is agreed on prior to the service taking place, they need to stick to it)
So as you can see, things do get a little more hazy when it comes to services, as it relies on both parties having the same idea of what's 'reasonable' in the particular context.
Just try to be objective about the situation, and don't be a chancer! If you think you have grounds for making a complaint, here's how to get results.
So, you bought the coolest-looking poncho ever after a few beers, then realised in the cold light of day that it wasn't as cool as you thought, and it dawned on you that ponchos have never been cool and never will be. But what can be done?
Remember, if our hypothetical poncho is not as it was described (if you bought it online), not of reasonable quality (it fell apart when you put it on) or doesn't fit its intended purpose (there are no arm holes) then you can always return it for a refund, exchange or repair. That's the law.
But what if you've just sobered up a bit and changed your mind? This part is a little bit more complicated, and depends primarily on where you bought it.
Bought from a physical store
Contrary to what you might think, shops on the high street have no legal obligation to let you return something if you've changed your mind.
However, in the interests of customer relations, most stores will offer a 'Goodwill returns policy', which does allow you to return it if you do change your mind. Never assume this is the case, though, and always make sure to check returns policies before you buy.
Whether they offer a refund, exchange or credit note is entirely up to the retailer, and it's up to you to ask what the policy is before you part with your cash (it'll often also be printed at the bottom of your receipt, but then it's too late!).
You will be expected to bring proof of purchase, but if you've lost the receipt, all is not totally lost. Whilst you're not likely to get a refund in this case, most stores will still offer an exchange or credit note (but if your returned item has gone into sale, you'll only be entitled to the value it's currently priced at if you've no proof of what you paid).
The rules are a bit different if you make a purchase online, as you're automatically covered by the Consumer Contracts Regulations.
The good news is, the CCR actually gives you additional rights as a consumer on the premise that you make your decision to buy something based only on a short description and photo. Therefore, you need more flexibility in terms of returning something if it's not what you were looking for when it arrives at your home.
Under the CCR, you have 14 days to return something from the day it arrives in your hands (although a lot of online retailers offer more than this, 14 is the minimum requirement by law) and the retailer has 14 days from the day of return to pay you back your cash (you can send them proof of postage if you can't wait for your cash).
The cost of you sending the item back to the seller by post normally won't be covered (unless the item is faulty or not as described, in which case the seller is obliged to cover postage), and there are some exceptions to this rule for things like food and other perishable goods which cannot be returned.
Click & Collect
So what if you bought or ordered that damn poncho online and then picked it up in store?
The determining factor in this equation is where in the process you parted with your cash. If you paid online, you're covered by CCR. If you paid in store, the regular consumer rights laws apply.
Discrepancies in pricing - so when one price is stated on a shelf or price tag but a different price comes up on the till when you're making your purchase - can be a bit of a grey area, as it really depends on what the retailer's policy is.
Here are a few things you can do if you find yourself presented with two totally different prices for your product.
If your item was bought in-store
So you decided it would be a good idea to splash out on cleaning products since they're on special offer, but when you get to the till it comes up as a different price.
Despite the rumours you may or may not have heard, shops do not have to honour the price on the ticket if it comes up differently (by law, anyway). However, many retailers will honour this as a matter of goodwill, but if you find yourself in this situation, we wouldn't recommend mouthing off about the law says blah blah...cause unfortunately, it doesn't!
Having said all that, if you manage to find and buy a mispriced item (eg. an item comes up as 2p instead of £2 at self checkout) then you have already entered into a contract with the store and the item is yours for the price you paid..
If your item was bought online
If you go to buy something online and it comes up as a different price at the checkout, you don't have any obligation to continue with the sale, as it's most likely the new price will be the one that's honoured.
Both online and offline, it is always worth flagging the difference to the shop's staff or customer services department before you hand over your cash, or later if you don't notice at the time. They may honour it as a gesture of goodwill. But the key thing to remember here is they're under no legal obligation to.
If your receipt says one amount and your card was debited differently, this is an entirely different matter.
Online price glitches
Every now and then, a website makes a small mistake and advertises a product at £1.99 instead of £199, or a checkout error might make the item free. Again, contrary to what some sites tell you, the seller doesn't have to honour the price.
The law states that the seller can argue that it was an obvious mistake and the buyer should have guessed this, meaning they don't have to sell you the goods at that price. If this is the case, you should be issued with a full refund of the price you paid.
However, in some cases, a glitch may not be as obvious. Imagine an online retailer put a jumper on sale and accidentally labelled it as £20 when it was meant to be £200. Here, you could argue that you thought this was the sale price - and once you bought it, the contract is in place.
Supermarket price wars
While shops don't have to honour the price on the shelf, some supermarkets have a policy in place to make sure you're not out of pocket - in fact, they'll even compensate you for your trouble.
If you're shopping at Tesco and end up overpaying for an item which was advertised at a lower price on the shelf, they will give you double the difference between the two prices.
For example, if pasta is advertised as £1 on the shelf and goes through the till as £2, you'd be entitled to a £2 refund (double the £1 difference).
- Pay for the item (wrongly priced) at the till
- Go to customer services with your receipt and purchases, explaining you think you've overpaid
- Show the shop assistant the price label or shelf pricing
- If you have been over charged, ask for 'Double The Difference' (it's company policy)
ASDA have a similar policy called the ASDA price guarantee, where they state that if a product you buy with them isn't 10% cheaper than it is in Tesco, Sainsbury's, Morrison's or Waitrose, they'll refund you the difference in ASDA vouchers.
Warning: This nifty little trick doesn't apply to online food shopping!
So, you ordered an amazing photo birthday cake for you mum's birthday that you know she's gonna love. But here's the rub, it hasn't arrived in time!
Thankfully, in an annoying situation like this, you could be entitled to your money back. Phew.
As most deliveries will be for items bought online (with the exception of larger items bought in store that need to be delivered), this means you're automatically covered by the Consumer Contracts Regulations Act, so you're able to ask for a full refund up to 14 days after making your purchase (you won't be covered by CCR if you paid in-store).
If you ordered an item and the seller specified a delivery date, then you're entitled to a full refund if it doesn't get to you by then.
No delivery date? They have 30 days to get the item to you before you can start throwing your toys out of the pram.
If you had to lose a shift at your part-time job to wait for a time-specific delivery that didn't show up, you could be able to claim compensation.
In this scenario, you saw an offer advertised where you could pick up 12 tins of beans for the price of six in your local supermarket. You decide that living off beans sounds like an excellent idea and head down, only to find they've sold out.
Yet while the shop don't legally have to do anything (it's not their fault the offer was popular) you may find some big names will try and make it up to you.
Tesco offer 'special promise' vouchers, that mean you can nab the product at the advertised price next time it comes back in stock - you just have to enquire and someone will sort you out.
Similarly, ASDA also offer 'smiley' vouchers and Sainsbury's have 'special coupons', but in order to get your hands on these, you might have to ask for a senior member of staff as not all members of staff are informed about the policy.
It's also worth mentioning that these vouchers are handed out at the store's discretion, so be super nice when you're asking!
While the points above cover the main issues you might face as a fully-fledged shopper with rights, there's always going to be small print we could add.
Here are a few extra nuggets of info to keep in mind!
Always ask for a gift receipt or to add a note that the item is a gift.
The rights can be transferred to the receiver. Some stores only allow the person who purchased the gift to return the item unless you do the above though.
If the product falls into any of these categories, you can’t return it.
You also can’t return something if the fault was your own doing (so no shrunk tops because you still struggle doing your own washing).
No matter what the seller of the item tells you, it’s down to them to offer the refund on the item that you have purchased.
Some stores attempt to shift the blame to the manufacturer but your complaint should be with the shop that you bought the item from.
Underwear, swimwear, or earrings can’t be returned due to hygiene reasons.
You get exactly the same rights on a free gift as you do for it’s paid counterparts – unless otherwise specified, such as ‘depending on availability’.
If you’re paying for something over £100, plastic is the way forward as you have more rights.
Use a student credit card because then the card company becomes jointly liable with the retailer if something goes wrong.
This is a whole different ball game in terms of complexities, even though you are paying for a roof over your head.
Check out our separate advice on Tenancy Agreements too.
These still carry all the same rights as if you’re buying something new, but obviously there may be wear and tear the seller has warned you about beforehand.
If you’ve been told it’s damaged, you can’t complain later!
Those of us who have worked in retail know that there is nothing worse than an irate customer shouting at you for circumstances beyond your control.
If the assistant can’t help you, calmly ask to speak to the manager.
Have you ever had to quote your rights to get what you rightfully deserve? Make sure to let us know your experiences below.