Hundreds hit as mail order firm goes bust: Ordering goods from a catalogue can be a risky business, warns Sue Fieldman

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ALISON McLEOD has been waiting for months for goods she ordered from a catalogue published on behalf of London Zoo.

Her predicament is a timely reminder to everyone that buying by mail order can be a risky business, even when the catalogue is issued on behalf of a well-known organisation.

In November 1993 Mrs McLeod, from Newcastle upon Tyne, ordered four items - a T-shirt, a pair of pyjamas, a lampshade and a sweatshirt - from Lifewatch catalogue, produced on behalf of London Zoo by Design Marketing, of Andover, Hampshire.

The items cost pounds 42.05 in total and Mrs McLeod sent a cheque in payment.

She received the T-shirt, which was fine, and the pyjamas, which were the wrong size. She sent the pyjamas back and asked for the correct size.

Meanwhile, in a letter dated 30 November, Lifewatch said that due to very high demand the lampshade and sweatshirt were temporarily out of stock. When new supplies were received they would be dispatched immediately.

Two days after the letter was sent Design Marketing went into receivership. It had also produced catalogues for the Victoria and Albert Museum, Child Line and the World Wildlife Fund. There were, therefore, hundreds of customers who had paid for goods and not received them.

On 8 January this year Mrs McLeod wrote to London Zoo. She has still not received a reply.

Bob Imrie, assistant county trading standards officer for Devon, says: 'These well- known organisations were benefiting from the catalogues. Morally they should not be able to walk away from their responsibilities, although legally they can.'

On 14 January, Mrs McLeod received a letter from the receivers of Design Marketing. Customers who had prepaid, cancelled the order and asked for their money back were unsecured creditors and unlikely to get any refund, it said.

But the organisations concerned and the company's bankers had agreed to put the company in funds so that goods could be supplied to customers who had paid in advance. Her order was to be reinstated, but on the basis that the goods were not returnable for a refund.

Two months later, Mrs McLeod has still not had the correct size pyjamas or the other two items.

We spoke to the accountants Touche Ross, the receivers. A spokesman said: 'The reason she has not received her goods is that they are out of stock, but she will get something. All orders are being honoured.'

A spokesman for London Zoo said he would try to trace Mrs McLeod's letter. 'Our prime concern is our customers,' he added. 'The charities involved negotiated quite heavily with the receivers so that the customers would get their items.

'But we cannot put any time pressure on the receivers as they were doing something quite out of the ordinary.'

Some customers of Design Marketing are satisfied, which is a better situation than many mail order businesses, which go into liquidation leaving all their customers out of pocket and without their goods.

Under the Consumer Credit Act, if you pay for goods by credit card and the supplier goes bust you can claim against the card company.

Mr Imrie said: 'The problem is that protection under the Act only applies if the cash price of an individual item exceeds pounds 100. If you have lots of small items which total more than pounds 100 it is not sufficient.

'There is also some protection under the mail order protection scheme, but it is restricted.'

If a catalogue is an insert in a national newspaper - the weekend supplements are positively overflowing with them - and the catalogue company goes bust you can get a refund from the newspaper under the scheme, which operates a fund to reimburse the newspapers. The catalogue must carry the scheme's Mops logo.

But if you got the catalogue through the post the scheme does not apply. It will also not come into effect if the company is still trading, as in the case of Design Marketing.

(Photograph omitted)

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