‘I wish to register a complaint’: know your consumer rights before the fight
When something you buy turns out to be faulty, what redress do you have? Turns out you have more rights than you think – or than some retailers would like you to think
It’s not dead, it’s resting: Michael Palin and John Cleese in Monty Python’s Dead Parrot sketch. Photograph: Columbia Pictures/Getty Images
Have you ever returned a faulty product to a shop only to be told by some jobsworth at the till that it’s out of warranty so there’s nothing they can do?
Or have you ever been offered the chance to buy an extended warranty and asked yourself if it makes sense? Have you ever been told by a retailer to deal directly with a manufacturer or been assured that a product you believe to be defective has stopped working because of something stupid you did?
If you have not experienced the delights of misleading or incompetent retail aftercare at least once in your shopping life, you are part of a very select club. Most of us have not been so lucky.
While retailers bear the bulk of responsibility for our regular failures to get satisfaction when trying to a problems resolved, if we walk into a scene of potential conflict unprepared and clueless over our rights we’re not doing ourselves any favours.
However, getting your head around your rights is not a simple affair. There’s the Sale of Goods Act 1893 and the Sale of Goods Act 1980 to consider. To that you have to add the Supply of Services Act 1980, the Unfair Terms in Consumer Contracts Regulations 1995, as well as the Consumer Sales Directive from 2003 and the Consumer Rights Directive from 2013.
A Europe-wide report on commercial warranties published earlier this year found that information about consumers’ rights was more often than not unclear. Researchers looked at 342 retail offers and found that in 71 per cent of cases, the information on consumers’ rights was unsatisfactory. Just over two-thirds did not adequately inform consumers about how to return a defective item to the seller. Meanwhile 40 per cent of products that had warranties did not provide clear information on who was actually providing them.
The report found that many retailers confused warranties with statutory rights, leading consumers to wrongly assume that the warranty alone applied to their purchase and they could not rely on their statutory rights in the event of a problem.
The good news is your rights can be boiled down to a few easy-to-understand points. Statutory rights are a legal guarantee allowing consumers to seek redress if an item is faulty regardless of whether or not a manufacturer has offered a warranty.
First, you have more rights than you think. Second, warranties are not the last word when something breaks or doesn’t work as it should. Warranties can be offered by manufacturers but statutory rights trump them every time. And third, your contract is always with the retailer and you can never be obliged to deal directly with a manufacturer no matter what you are told.
Lack of understanding
When she is asked if consumers have a lack of understanding of their rights when it comes to faulty products, Caroline Curneen of the European Consumer Centre doesn’t skip a beat. “Oh, 100 per cent yes. There is a huge level of confusion,” she says.
“I think we are very well-served with legislation protecting consumers, but if there is confusion out there, I would certainly understand it,” says Sean Murphy, the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission’s legal adviser. “Consumer laws can be very complex, and confusion over terms like warranty and guarantee don’t help.”
To the confusion we can add a dollop of shops shirking their responsibilities.
“All the time we hear stories of retailers passing on the responsibility to manufacturers,” Curneen says. “It is particularly common in electronics stores, where the staff may not have the technical know-how to deal with queries, so they try and pass it on. It is either a lack of education with the retail sector or company policies aimed at making things difficult for consumers.”
She says that “the number of people who contact us about problems with frontline staff suggest that it is an ongoing problem. People can draw their own conclusions about what is at the root of the problem.”
Responsibilities aside, it is important to remember that under the Sale of Goods Act, consumers have up to six years to seek redress for faulty or defective items. There are limits to this law, however. And the limits are typically governed by how much you pay for something, what it is supposed to do and what you do with it.
A watch that costs €10 is probably not going to last long, so if it breaks after a year you have no real comeback. An Apple Watch, however, should last quite a bit longer than that.
A couch should last years – unless you have fully grown rugby players trampolining on it.
“If something is expensive, then there is a reasonable expectation it will perform to a higher standard and for longer than if it is really cheap,” Murphy says.
Curneen, meanwhile, cites the example of a laptop. If it fails after 13 months, it is not fit for purpose, she argues.
“The most important thing to do if you meet resistance in the shop – which is the first line of defence – is to put the complaint in writing and address it to management. The retailer is ultimately responsible.”
Another little-known right consumers have is that if a fault materialises within six months of a product being bought, the fault is presumed to have existed when it left the shop and the consumer is not legally obliged to provide proof of the defect.
After that, the burden of proof switches and the consumer has to prove any fault did not arise as a result of misuse. Sometimes this can be straightforward but if it is not, they would have to get a report from an independent expert to establish their bona fides.
Extended warranties are another contentious issue. Such warranties are supposed to insure you against the cost of repairs for a period after a guarantee runs out. But frequently they are sold to maximise shop profits.
People are especially vulnerable after making a major purchase. But the premiums quoted for most extended warranties mean that you are getting peace of mind at a horrendous price. Stores extract very high profit margins from additional warranty cover.
The warranty on something that costs €150 can be as much as €30, while if you buy a €200 vacuum cleaner you can expect to pay €50 for three years’ cover. A three-year warranty on a computer that cost €1,000 will cost €189, while a five-year warranty will set you back €300.
Research carried out by British Consumers Association magazine Which? several years ago warned against extended warranties. It looked at a washing machine (the most likely appliance to break down). It put the cost of repair at €50 and the cost of a warranty at €175. Because modern washing machines don’t break down that often, you only have a 4 per cent chance of getting your money back, according to Which?
But with retailers misleading consumers – either intentionally or otherwise – and sometimes selling them warranties they don’t need, what can consumers do? Knowledge is always the key.
“If someone is informed about their rights and makes it clear when they are dealing with retailers, then that absolutely carries sway,” Murphy says.