Understanding your consumer rights
Understanding your rights as a consumer might sound dull, but what if knowing the facts could save you hundreds, if not thousands of pounds, 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
Your basic rights
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.
Consumer Rights Act explained
Every time you buy something from a seller, you enter into a contract where they agree to honour 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.
Here's an example of something a company might say that would breach the Consumer Rights Act:
There is no exchange or refund on sale items.
This breaches the law, as it implies that even if the item you buy in the sale turns out to be faulty, you won't be entitled to an exchange or refund. This is not the case. The same rules apply whether an item is on sale or not.
As for the Consumer Rights Act itself, 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 sales assistant who says 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 set of speakers that don't work with your TV, you won't necessarily be entitled to a refund (they may only offer an exchange if that's their policy).
Of satisfactory quality
Goods should never be damaged or faulty when you purchase them.
This is unless a prior agreement has been made between you and the seller in order to receive a discount, like if you agree to buy a jacket with a missing button for a 10% discount. However, this should always be marked on your receipt.
It's all 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 tyre pump would be expected to last for well over a year, whereas a £5 pump is likely to have a comparatively shorter life span.
Something is classed as being of satisfactory quality 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 is against the law.
This is particularly relevant to online shopping, where you won't know for sure what you've bought until it's been delivered.
For example, you might buy a phone that stated online and on the box that it's white, but once you open it up, it turns out the product is black. In this case, you're 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.
As for clothing, you can get a refund on anything from an incorrectly labelled 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 you have to claim under your consumer rights?
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!
Consumer rights and poor service
Although there is an obvious difference between purchasing goods and paying for a service, the Consumer Rights Act applies to both (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, dry cleaning or anything else you can think of.
The main criteria covering services are:
- 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 hazier when it comes to services. More often than not, it relies on both parties having the same idea of what's 'reasonable' in a 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.
Returning unwanted items
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. 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 all covered by the Consumer Rights Act.
But what if you've just sobered up a bit and changed your mind? This part is a little bit more complicated and mostly depends on where you bought it.
Returning something bought in a shop
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'. This allows you to return the product if you do change your mind, but as it's not legally binding, you should never assume this is the case and always make sure to check returns policies before you buy.
Whether they offer a refund, exchange or store credit is entirely up to the retailer, and it's up to you to ask what the policy is before you part with your cash. The returns policy is often also printed at the bottom of your receipt, but by then it's too late!
If you do decide to return your purchase, you'll be expected to bring proof of purchase – but if you've lost the receipt, all is not lost.
Although you're not likely to get a refund in this case, most stores will still offer an exchange or credit note. However, if the item you're returning has gone into sale and you have no proof of purchasing it at a higher price, you'll only be entitled to a refund/exchange/store credit at its new, lower price.
What you need to have the best chance of getting a refund
- The receipt
- The bank card you bought the product on (if you bought it with cash, you don't need to worry about this!)
- The original packaging (even if it's a label that you've cut off)
Returning an online purchase
The rules are a bit different if you make a purchase online, as you're automatically covered by the Consumer Contracts Regulations (CCR).
The good news is, the CCR actually gives you additional rights as a consumer on the premise that you bought something based only on a short description and photo. As a result, you're given more flexibility to return something if you realise it's not what you were looking for when it arrives.
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 returning the item normally won't be covered by the retailer (unless the item is faulty or not as described, in which case the seller is obliged to cover postage), and some things like food and other perishable goods cannot be returned.
Returning click and collect purchases
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.
Price changes and discrepancies
Discrepancies in pricing (when one price is stated on the price tag or shelf, but a different price comes up when its scanned through the till) can be a bit of a grey area. 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).
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 how the law says this or that – because, unfortunately, it doesn't!
Having said all that, if you manage to find and buy a mispriced item (e.g. 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, 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 do so.
If your receipt says one amount and your card was debited differently, this is an entirely different matter and one that you should take up with the retailer ASAP.
Online price glitches
Every now and then, a website makes a small mistake and misprices a product, like listing it at £1.99 instead of £199. Or sometimes, a checkout error might make the item free. And often, if they do, we'll often feature it in our deals section.
But 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. And 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.
Can you get a refund for a late delivery?
So, you ordered a new bikini and chose next day delivery as you need it in time for your holiday. But here's the problem: it hasn't arrived on time! Thankfully, in an annoying situation like this, you could be entitled to your money back. Phew.
Deliveries are usually for items which were bought online (unless it's a larger item bought in-store that needed to be delivered), meaning you're automatically covered by the Consumer Contracts Regulations.
As a result, 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, you're entitled to a full refund if it doesn't get to you by then.
No specific delivery date? They have 30 days to get the item to you before you can start throwing your toys out of the pram.
And 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.
Out of stock offers
Imagine 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.
Although the shop doesn'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. 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.
Consumer rights FAQs
Can you get a refund on a gift?
As the gift-giver, you should always ask for a gift receipt or to add a note that the item is a gift, as the rights can be transferred to the receiver.
What's more, some stores only allow the person who purchased the gift to return the item unless a gift receipt has been added. If the person who has received the gift doesn't have a gift receipt, they may not be able to get a refund of any kind.
Can you return personalised, perishable or opened items?
Legally speaking, a retailer has no obligation to refund personalised items (like a mug with a picture of you on it, for example), perishable goods (like food) or opened items. As with many of these cases though, individual retailers may have their own policies where they will allow returns as a gesture of goodwill.
Similarly, if you've damaged or caused a fault to a product, the company is not required to refund your purchase – as long as it's your fault.
For example, if you bought a plastic chair that broke as soon as you sat on it, that's probably the company's fault and you have a fair case to ask for a refund. However, if you bought a jumper and shrunk it after washing it on completely the wrong setting, that one's on you.
Who should you return a product to?
No matter what the retailer 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.
Are there some clothes that can't be returned?
Underwear, swimwear, or earrings can't be returned due to hygiene reasons.
What are your rights with freebies?
The exact same consumer rights apply to freebies as for regular paid-for purchases.
What's the safest way to buy things?
If you're paying for something over £100, paying by credit card is the way forward as you have more rights.
Purchases over this value are covered by Section 75 of the Consumer Credit Act, meaning that if anything goes wrong, the credit card company is jointly liable alongside the retailer.
Crucially, you don't even have to have spent over £100 on the credit card. As long as the overall value of the transaction was over £100, the credit card company is liable – even if the amount you paid using the credit card was below that threshold.
Do consumer rights apply to second-hand purchases?
If you buy something second hand you still have all the same rights as if you're buying something new – but obviously, there may be wear and tear that the seller has warned you about beforehand.
If you've been told it's damaged, you can't complain later!