The customer is almost always right

Posted on: November 19th, 2014

The Government this summer introduced major new changes to consumer legislation. The message for retailers is quite simple – the customer is always right.

Consumer rights has, to date, been provided by a large number of different pieces of legislation and regulations. It has in many instances failed to keep up to date with the changing way consumers buy, and change is long overdue. 

The new regulations – nattily called The Consumer Contracts (Information Cancellation and Additional Charges Regulations) – replaces the previous law on distance selling and doorstep selling, although carry many of their essential parts into the new regulations. 

These new regulations implement the EU Consumer Rights Directive with the aim of harmonising Consumer Protection rules across the EU. The new regulations form part of a wider overhaul of consumer law, which includes the Consumer Rights Bill currently being considered by Parliament.

If introduced, the Bill will consolidate consumer rights in the UK and deal with matters such as unfair terms in consumer contracts and the statutory rights of consumers. The changes to the legislation introduced in the summer afford consumers much stronger rights, and will affect businesses in different ways depending on how they sell to their customers – whether in store, online or over the telephone, at trade fairs and exhibitions or in the customer’s own home.

The 1979 Sale of Goods Act, importantly, remains unchanged. Under this Act, all consumers are entitled to return or a refund if the items purchased are: 

  • Not of satisfactory quality;
  • Not fit for purpose; or
  • Not as described.

Despite many misconceptions a retailer is under no obligation to exchange, refund or offer a gift voucher if the customer simply changes his or her mind, although many do. Legally, only the person who purchased the item has the right to exchange or seek a refund, leaving it to the customer to advise the retailer if the item is being purchased as a gift.

In order to obtain a refund or exchange an item, the customer must return the item within a reasonable time – usually four weeks from the date of purchase. Faulty items can be returned within six months, but retailers should note, however, that it is their responsibility to prove that an item is not faulty, which can
often be difficult. 

So what’s new?

When buying online a customer has, in most circumstances, the right to cancel the order within 14 days rather than seven days under the old regulations, to have the goods supplied within 30 days of the date of the order, and to keep any unsolicited goods sent which they didn’t request. 

Online retailers must also provide customers with full details of all costs and charges; if they do not the customer is now quite within their rights to refuse to pay any additional costs. Importantly, online retailers must also provide an estimated maximum cost for returning any unwanted goods. 

When buying digital content – such as music, books or films – the customer will need to be provided with information relating to compatibility and technical protection measures. Customers also have the right to cancel an order right up to the point of download.

Sales made to customers over a £42 threshold outside of their normal trading premises – called off-premises sales – are also afforded greater protection. 

This includes sales made in a customer’s home, on the street and at a sales event, for example a craft fair in a hotel or village hall. 

The new regulations also apply to services purchased off-premises. The customer has the right to cancel within the cooling off period even if the service has started. The customer will, rightly, have to pay for any part of that service used.

Retailer’s checklist

  • Check and review practices and procedures to make sure customers are provided with the necessary information to comply with the law.
  • Review Terms and Conditions and make sure that they are included into the contract with customers.  Check that they are enforceable, and contain all the relevant information, such as cancellation periods.
  • Provide customers with the right information at the right time to limit exposure to claims or longer cooling off periods.