What becomes of the broken parted?

Shoppers: do you know your rights? Damaged goods mean a full refund, says Steve Lodge, no matter what the retailer tells you
You Buy something from a shop and almost instantly regret it. But how many people know their rights for getting money back or even just exchanging the item?

With Britain set for a summer spending spree, thanks to the millions of people getting pounds 1,000-plus windfalls from building societies and insurers, some poor purchases are inevitable. Dissatisfied shoppers will in some cases be surprised just how strong their rights are and how well protected they are from themselves, in other cases they may feel cheated.

Regardless of any separate guarantees or warranties, if goods are faulty you are legally entitled to an automatic refund from the retailer - note, not just an exchange or a credit note, but a full refund. And if you pay by credit card and an item costs more than pounds 100 you also have the alternative of claiming the refund from the credit card company, although card companies will almost certainly want you to pursue the retailer vigorously in the first instance.

But if, instead, you simply don't like something you may be surprised at how weak your legal rights are - technically zilch, even to exchange the item. In practice, however, many shops will allow customers to return unwanted items, and with some this will even extend to refunds.

The law (the Sale and Supply of Goods Act 1994 is the one to quote) says goods sold to shoppers have to be of "satisfactory quality" and be "as described" (so if they do have defects or they are shop-soiled these should be pointed out). If they are faulty take them back as soon as possible, with a receipt if at all possible (although in theory any proof of purchase should be adequate) and you should be offered a refund. If, for example, clothes wear out or fall apart quickly you should be entitled to a refund based on the "satisfactory quality" test. It does not matter if goods are in a sale or if a shop has a sign claiming no refunds, you are still entitled to the same legal ("statutory") rights.

There are grey areas, however. The law says that goods should be returned within a "reasonable" period but there may be different views on how long this is. The Consumers' Association says that if you buy skis out of season and don't discover they are faulty until the following winter, you should still be entitled to a full refund. But what if something wears out or breaks down - how long have you got? Basically, you should aim to return items as soon as you discover the fault.

Whether a defect is sufficient to entitle you to a refund is also an area potentially open to dispute. If clothes literally fall apart after a week it would seem clear they have failed the "satisfactory quality" test, but what if a button falls off? The fault may not in itself be that great but a consumer might argue that if it was an expensive item of clothing they could expect much better quality for their money, and therefore be entitled to a refund. "The law is not black and white [on small defects]," says Lynn Gould of the Institute of Consumer Affairs.

However for every purchase that proves defective there are likely to be plenty of others, particularly with items like clothes, where you simply change your mind about wanting to keep the item, or where it is an unwanted present. But here you have to rely on the goodwill of the retailer as shops are under no obligation to allow any sort of comeback, nor do they do have to highlight a no-returns policy. That said, many shops do in practice allow returns of unwanted goods. Again, having a receipt will do no harm and will often be a requirement.

Consumer advisers recommend checking a shop's policy on returns when you buy something, or at least getting verbal agreement that if you change your mind about something you can get your money back.

If a retailer refuses to pay up on faulty goods, remind them of your rights under the 1994 Sale and Supply of Goods Act. Failing that, threatening to go to the trading standards department of the local authority may help. As, of course, may a letter to the company's head office, if it is elsewhere. Citizens' Advice Bureau may also be able to help, including giving an outline of the small claims court procedure, even if many people may be inclined to write the money off if it reaches this stage.

q 'The Buyers Guide' is a free booklet produced by the Office of Fair Trading covering buyers' rights. Call 0181-957 5058 for a copy.