How to make sure you have a happy Christmas

Gifts you bought online haven't arrived, your dinner was dire and your hairdo is a disaster. Samantha Downes explains your rights

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The Independent Online

The average person will spend at least £300 on presents and entertaining this Christmas. Some surveys have put the figure higher, a few lower, but the bottom line is whatever we spend, our expectations are higher around Christmas than at any other time of year.

Of course, by the law of averages, it is also the time when things are most likely to go wrong.

Your gifts don't arrive on time

In an ideal world we would all buy our Christmas presents early. But the reality is this December an estimated £8bn will be spent online, most of that in the two weeks before the 25th. And, as in every year, some of those gifts will not arrive on time.

Therese Wallin, legal expert at find-a-solicitor service Contact Law, says checking delivery dates is a must. "Not only do delivery times vary among online retailers, they can even vary when delivered from the same website," she warns. Standard delivery is usually around five to seven working days, but online retailers can have up to 30 days to deliver goods.

"In some cases retailers may specify pre-Christmas delivery as part of the contract," Wallin says. "If this is the case, and your gifts arrive late, you may be able to make a claim for breach of contract and you can cancel your order and get your money back."

There are other things to bear in mind too. A White Christmas may delay deliveries, so check your retailer's policy. "Each will be different," points out Wallin. "For some, the standard rules may apply, others may have 'unforeseen circumstances' which may then exempt them from a claim for breach of contract."

You've bought a replacement gift

If you've gone and bought another gift in the meantime, you can take advantage of a legal cooling-off period which allows you seven days to decide whether or not you want the original or replacement gift; regardless of the reason you wish to return the item.

This applies from when you receive the item – so if it arrives late, this seven-day period will not be affected. "Some retailers will give you a bit longer. Amazon, gives you 30 days to return goods if you've changed your mind," says Wallin.

However, the cooling-off period does not apply if you bought something customised. It also doesn't apply if you bought fresh food or flowers or if you've taken a DVD or CD out of its packaging. Purchases from online auctions like eBay are not covered either.

And if you've bought from an overseas company, beware – you may not be covered at all.

Your gifts arrive damaged

"The Sale of Goods Act covers damaged goods and it applies to purchases in store and online," Wallin says. "It states goods must be sold as they are described, must be of a satisfactory quality, and must be fit for purpose."

If it's a minor fault some shops insist on repairing them, which is within their rights. If this is the case, they need to repair the goods within a reasonable time period, at no additional cost.

"If this is inconvenient to you, you should be given a replacement item on a like-for-like basis. If you feel the repair is not up to scratch, or there continues to be a fault with the product, you can then insist on a refund."

It's summer and the Xbox you bought at Christmas stops working

The Sale of Goods Act states that you can return gifts within "reasonable time" which, as a rough guide, can be anything up to six months, though it is recommended you do this as soon as possible and the damage must not have been caused by wear and tear or misuse.

The gifts you bought are unwanted

"When you buy a gift for someone, all of the refund and return rights still apply," says Gillian Guy, chief executive of Citizens Advice.

Many retailers give gift receipts when you buy items. You can hand them over to the recipient of the gift without revealing what you've spent.

But it also means that you can transfer your rights along with the gift. Guy says if it is a particularly expensive gift it may also be worth letting the shop record the name of the person you're giving the gift to on the receipt.

Many shops will make an effort to be particularly accommodating around Christmas so if you are particularly persuasive you may find that they are willing to at least offer you an exchange or credit for unwanted goods that you've taken back too late, as long as you have the receipt and the goods are still in the condition they were when you purchased them.

"It never hurts to stand your ground with retailers – most are actually pretty reasonable," says Wallin.

The gifts you bought have gone missing

The first thing you should do, if something hasn't arrived at all, is to get proof of postage from the retailer.

If they can't produce anything, whether it's an email or tracking number, then you can ask for your money back.

If they are able to produce proof the item was sent and you have still not received the gifts then you may be able to claim your money back thanks to a clause in the Consumer Credit Act.

If you bought via a debit card the act allows you to claim back for the whole amount. If you bought with a credit card you can claim your cash back, so long as the gift cost £100 or more.

The office Christmas meal was a disaster

If your once-a-year food and drink fest with colleagues resulted in a two-hour wait for lukewarm turkey and cold mince pies, then you should complain.

"If you are unhappy with your meal then talk to the waiter or the manager and explain why. Then things can be rectified on the spot," advises Alex Whitelaw of restaurant chain Pizza Express.

If the meal results in another unwanted Christmas present – food poisoning – then you have a duty to complain says Whitelaw.

"If someone thinks they have food poisoning then they need to tell the restaurant fast. Of course it may be that you could get a refund or compensation. Thankfully food poisoning is rare but it does happen."

Your Christmas party hairdo goes wrong

If you are trying a new hairdresser your best bet is to check that they are registered with the Hairdressing Council, the nearest thing the UK has to a statutory body for the hairdressing profession.

"Anyone can practice as a hairdresser which means the industry is in effect unregulated," warns Sally Styles, registrar at the Hairdressing Council. "Britain is one of very few countries in which anyone, without registration, qualifications or even any form of recognised training, is free to set up and practice as a hairdresser.

"The best advice to anyone seeking hairdressing services is to choose a state registered hairdresser. If your hairdresser is registered with us then you are protected. If not, your only option is to seek redress through the courts.

Styles says if you are having you hair dyed for the first time your colourist should always request a patch test to check you are not allergic to any of the chemicals used.

You can find out whether your hairdresser is registered by checking the Hair Council website.

Citizens advice: consumer rights guide

Keep all receipts

Many shops will let you change your mind when there is no fault, so ask.

Check sizes

If you are buying underwear or clothes for your partner or wife it might be a good idea to sneak a look at size labels in the things she is already wearing.

Remember your rights

"Whatever time of year – be it Christmas or summer – the goods you buy must be of satisfactory quality; match the description (if it says it is an all wool jumper, it should be a jumper made of wool); and be fit for their purpose. So if you were buying computer software and asked whether it would work on your particular computer, it should do so," says Gillian Guy, chief executive of Citizens Advice.

Check the delivery date

Bear in mind that at this time of year orders can take longer than normal to arrive.

Be sales savvy

Your rights are just the same if you are buying goods in the sale as at any other time. But if there is a notice or a tag on the product that says it is faulty – that's why it's cheap.

Don't be afraid to complain

Jacqueline Kinnison, 67, runs a networking beauty business and has three grandchildren. She lives in Stansted, Essex.

"Last year I bought a turkey crown from our local Waitrose in Bishop's Stortford.

"I bought it on Christmas Eve just before the shop closed. The manager was walking round offering them for £5, they normally sell at £30 plus but obviously they would be out of date before the store opened again on 27 December.

"We cooked the turkey on Boxing Day but it was so tough we couldn't eat it; although obviously not 'off' we weren't happy with it.

"I took the turkey back to the store on 27 December and complained. Not only did I get my money back – without having to show the receipt (they didn't ask for it) I also got another Turkey, which we ate on New Year's Eve."

Waitrose said: "We ask our customers to let us know if there is an issue so we can resolve it – our policy is to replace it and offer a refund."

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