Knowledge is power and the more of it you possess when it comes to the rights you have and do not have as a consumer the more empowered you will be when dealing with retailers and service providers, especially when things go wrong.
Let’s start with a few questions.
Have you ever returned a faulty product to a shop only to be told that it’s out of warranty so there’s nothing they can do?
Or has a retailer told you to deal directly with a manufacturer when things go wrong?
Or maybe they insisted a product you believe to be defective stopped working because of something you did?
If any of these things has happened, the retailer is in the wrong.
Have you gone into a shop in a rage and demanded a refund or a replacement for a product you bought that doesn’t work as well as you think it should and become even more enraged when they say “no”?
Or have you been left furious when a retailer refused to exchange a product because you don’t have a receipt (or other proof of purchase) despite the fact that it is in perfect condition and still has the tags on it and clearly came from the shop in question?
Or maybe a shop refused to sell you something at the price that was on the shelf because that price was wrong and the right price was higher?
In all of these cases, you are in the wrong.
While retailers can bear the bulk of responsibility, if we walk into a scene of potential conflict and fail to prepare we are – in the words of Roy Keane – “preparing to fail”.
Getting your head around your consumer rights is not easy.
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.
And when you get through all these, the Consumer Rights Act was added to the mix last year which changed the game significantly.
Repairs, replacements or refunds
First off, when you buy a product you have the right to expect it to be of:
- an acceptable standard
- fit for its intended purpose
- and as advertised
If it’s not, you are entitled to either a repair, a replacement or a refund.
When you are returning an item because you think it is faulty make sure you go into the shop armed with the facts.
You cannot expect a retailer to automatically provide a refund. And, generally speaking, you have no right to one.
While you have a right to either a repair, a replacement or a refund, it is the retailer who gets to choose which is offered. And more often than not their first choice is a repair. They do not have to give you a replacement product while yours is in for repair either.
A shop assistant or store manager is unlikely to be qualified to assess a technical fault and dismiss it. If they try to do that, you have the right to insist the product is returned to the manufacturer, where people are better placed to identify a potential flaw.
While you can make a shop send a product back to the manufacturer, it cannot insist that you deal directly with the manufacturer. As a consumer your contract is always with the seller of the goods, although you are perfectly within your rights to go directly to the manufacturer with a problem.
If the price of something on the shelf is less than the price eventually quoted at the till, a consumer does not have an automatic right to buy the product at the lower price. The price on the shelf is what is known as an “invitation to treat”, and no contract is in place until money changes hands.
Even if money changes hands you may still lose out. For example, if you bought a television online for a tenner or a business class seat on a transatlantic flight for a fiver and had the order accepted and your credit card deducted, the sale can still be cancelled by the retailer or airline if they believe a mistake has been made.
That is because the contract is deemed null and void if it is based on erroneous information.
Proof of purchase
Many good shops have very generous returns policies and allow you to exchange goods within a set time frame of purchase simply because you have changed your mind. Sometimes they will give you a credit note, sometimes they will give you your cash back. They are under absolutely no legal obligation to do either.
If you are returning something bought because it is in some way flawed you do not need a store receipt. Legally all that is required is proof of purchase. That can take many forms, including credit card receipts or bill, or a cheque stub. Although we can’t imagine that many people pay for anything by cheque anymore.
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 – a word which is often used by retailers as some class of get-out-of-jail-free card.
Warranties can be offered by manufacturers but statutory rights trump them every time. 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. A couch should last years – unless you have adult rugby players trampolining on it.
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.
Consumer Rights Act
Last year the Consumer Rights Act was signed into law giving people more rights while empowering regulators to address issues with providers in a more forceful manner.
You can read more about the Consumer Rights Act here.
Many of the laws in place to protect Irish consumers were drawn up before widespread online retailing so some practices, which would be considered unacceptable in the real world, have been happening in the virtual world with little or no legal protections for consumers.
When you buy a physical product and it breaks, you have a certain right that you did not have when it came to digital products.
But under the Consumer Rights Act, consumers now have the same rights and protections over digital content and digital services, such as streaming, downloads, cloud products, as they do currently with a physical product or service
Also among the enhanced digital protections is the right to a full refund, exchange or repair when goods or services are not as described or not fit for purpose.
People are also entitled to any upgrades to the product or service that are required to ensure the goods continue to work as expected and agreed, free of charge.
As well as having the right to a refund, a replacement or a repair when a product is flawed, the new law gives people the right to agree a price reduction on faulty goods and they will be entitled to withhold payment for goods partially paid for if they are not satisfied with the quality of the item received.
The law also stops companies using certain terms and conditions which are “automatically regarded as unfair when put in a contract”.
Any condition which allows a trader unilaterally change the terms of a contract, or any provision which would indemnify a trader from harm caused by a product or service is not allowed. Businesses also have to set out clearly a description of the goods or services being provided, the total price and the cost of delivery before entering into a contract with a consumer.
The Competition and Consumer Protection Commission can take enforcement action against traders who refuse or fail to provide consumers with a remedy for faulty goods or services. They will also be able to take action against traders who fail or refuse to make a reimbursement to which consumers are entitled under the Consumer Rights Act.
New pricing indication regulations mean that if a retailer has a sale, they will have to clearly display the previous price and that will have to be the lowest price the product was priced at over the last 30 days before it went into sale. In times past, a retailer could have increased the price just before it went on sale or used the Recommended Retail Price from 12 months previously when boasting about a discount.
We hope you enjoyed this article and that it dealt with your questions. If you have more questions around your rights or other personal finance quries you can email us at OnTheMoney@irishtimes.com. If you missed last week’s newsletter, you can read it here (Why are savers being held to ransom by Ireland’s banks?). Also, to ensure you continue to receive On The Money, be sure to add the newsletter email address to your safe senders list.