Martin Lewis: shoppers, know your rights

Shoppers should arm themselves with knowledge of their consumer rights.

I was scared enough just standing behind the grande dame in the queue, as her indignation boomed, “Give me my money back this is a disgrace.” As for the shop assistant who bore the brunt face-on, her sin was having the temerity to refuse to exchange “uncool” jeans wrongly bought for the lady’s daughter. The problem with this store rage? The shop assistant was right.

Consumer rights ignorance is mainstream on both sides of the till shop staff regularly quote utter bilge at us, too. Few customers can tell fact from fiction, and thus bring out the heavy guns for the wrong reasons. Test yourself … true or false?

“Sorry, if it’s faulty, you need to send it to the manufacturer.”

Nonsense, your ''contract’’ is with the store you bought it from, and it’s responsible for sorting it out.

“You’ve changed your mind, so you can only have a credit note, not a refund.”

Take it; you’re doing well. The goods aren’t faulty, so by law you have no rights whatsoever. The same applies if goods are the wrong size (unless they’re very obviously not the size as described).

“No returns on sales goods.”

Balderdash. If they’re faulty you can return them, simple as that.

“You can only return goods with a receipt.”

Yes and no. You usually only need proof of purchase when goods are faulty; so a bank statement or other proof can take the place of a receipt. If it’s not faulty, you have no rights, therefore if store policy says a receipt’s needed, it’s needed.

“It must still have the tags on it.”

False if it’s faulty. If it’s not, you’re subject to the store’s rules again. The same applies if they tell you it needs to be in the original box or if they refuse returns on goods bought with a credit note.

“No returns on faulty underwear if it’s been worn.”

Baloney. There’s no underwear law, you still have your statutory rights. Knickers to anyone who says different.

“You’re buying it faulty, so can’t ever return it.”

A sales assistant quoted this nonsense to me once. Mrs MSE had spotted a suitable jacket on sale; it was the last in my size but had a loose button. They offered a paltry discount and said “But if anything else goes wrong, you can’t bring it back.” Bunkum! As I politely explained, while correct for the button fault, if I later find out there’s an unnoted armpit tear, all rights are retained.

"What are ''statutory rights’’?

Shops’ own returns policies normally set the rules, but if goods are faulty, these are trumped by powerful laws as heralded by those thrilling in-store “This does not affect your statutory rights” signs that say everything needed but explain nothing.

If goods are not faulty, then legally, with store-bought goods, you have no rights to return whatsoever. Let me say that again: no rights whatsoever! People find that tough to take.

The exception is, if a shop has a published returns policy, then it forms part of the condition of sale, or ''contract of sale’’, and is enforceable in court.

Time to tool up

The key law to know is the Sales of Goods Act 1979. This should be compulsorily taught in schools, but isn’t. All shop staff should be trained to know it, but they’re not. So instead, savvy consumers must arm themselves with the knowledge.

When you buy goods the phrase that pays is that goods must be of:

“Satisfactory quality, as described, fit for purpose and last a reasonable length of time.”

These are the ''faulty’’ rights. If goods fall down on this, then by law they’re faulty and you have a right of refund or repair. Most of these rights are self-explanatory; for example, if you bought speakers that do work but don’t fit your iPod, they are ''as described’’, unless the box or the shop assistant promised they definitely would work with iPods.

The biggest confusion tends to come over ''lasts a reasonable length of time”. As it’s a subjective law, just ask yourself what a dispassionate, reasonable person would say to your argument.

For example, if you had a 10p whistle that broke down after six months, you’d probably think that that was reasonable, but you wouldn’t say the same if a £5,000 LCD TV went kaput after the same time. The longest the law allows you to complain is up to six years after buying, but it’s rare that things should reasonably last that long.

[Related feature: Martin Lewis' 10 consumer weapons]