Britons love to bellyache

But before we complain about goods and services, we should take stock of our rights, says Sam Dunn
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The Independent Online

The nation of shopkeepers has given rise to a nation of moaners. Every day in the first three months of this year, an average of 2,463 complaints were received by UK Trading Standards offices from disgruntled buyers of goods and services.

Up from an average of 2,410 a day over the same period last year, this figure reflects a growing awareness of consumer rights as well as a willingness to complain, says the Office of Fair Trading.

The financial services industry has also been buffeted by a wave of claims over products that have failed to deliver the returns promised to savers and investors. Mis-selling of personal pensions, mortgage endowments, split-cap investment trusts and high-income bonds has cost companies millions of pounds in payouts to unhappy consumers.

But while more of us are prepared to complain, and you are legally entitled to a refund or replacement if goods are faulty, the customer is not always right and expectations can be too high.

"We are inundated with complaints about goods and people asking 'Can I have my money back?' " says Tony Northcott, spokesman for Trading Standards. "For example, people in shops think they can change their minds, but legally they can't."

While most retailers don't hesitate to provide replacements or refunds for faulty products, some will also do the same for goods in perfect order if customers have changed their minds. Stores including Marks & Spencer, HMV, WH Smith and Top Shop do this, sometimes without requiring a receipt.

But all this goodwill in the hope of breeding customer loyalty is muddying the waters over what consumers are actually entitled to. "People are not always aware of their real legal rights because so many traders go beyond the minimum they have to give, and they see that as normal," says Mr Northcott. "There is a limit, though, because a lot depends on the customer's attitude."

For example, if you spy a shirt mistakenly priced at £45 among a row of the same shirts all priced at £65, you might assume you have the right to buy it at that price. However, while it is an offence to give misleading information, the shop is under no obligation to sell to you at the reduced price if it can prove it has made a genuine error.

You need to watch out, too, for other instances where you have no legal entitlement to any exchange or refund. If you make a mistake and buy the wrong size coat, for example, or decide later that the colour doesn't suit you, the shop is not obliged to help.

Similarly, if you have second thoughts after buying goods in a store, or see the same item for half the price in another shop, you don't have any legal right to return the goods. A "cooling-off period", allowing you to change your mind, usually exists only in the case of goods bought through cold-call selling, mail order or on the internet - with exceptions such as concert tickets.

Damage to goods can also leave you high and dry. For example, if you make a hole in a new jumper or smash a vase, that is your misfortune. Similarly, if you knowingly buy a second-hand stereo with a faulty amp, or a car with a dented bonnet, you won't be able to claim your money back at a later date.

At the heart of your rights as a consumer is the contract between you and the retailer. It legally binds you to the exchange of money for goods, and it's worth remembering that verbal agreements - if you agree to buy a product, say, but return later to settle up - are just as binding as written ones.

You have plenty of legislation to support you: the Sale of Goods Act 1979 (amended by the Sale & Supply of Goods Act 1994 and Sale & Supply of Goods to Consumers Regulations 2002) is central. Goods have to be safe and fit for use; the price mustn't be misleading; and inaccurate descriptions are banned.

It's also essential to react swiftly to any perceived problem to stop a company saying that you took an unreasonable amount of time to complain, and delaying any payout to you.

Buying on a credit card confers extra protection as long as your purchase costs more than £100. Thanks to the Consumer Credit Act 1974, any problems with, say, a new dishwasher become those of both the supplier and the credit provider. This can be particularly helpful if the supplier goes bust or if you bought the goods overseas, as it is far easier to pursue a claim against a finance company.

Contacts: www.tradingstandards.gov.uk; www.oft.gov.uk; www.ncc.org.uk

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