Shops in full sale at last – but be sure you know your rights

Tempting bargains are here at last but terms and conditions for returns and refunds are just as important as those juicy price tags

The most savage price-cutting in a generation means that finally Britain's shop tills are ringing again. Major shoping centres such as Bluewater in Kent and London's Westfield are reporting heavy footfall, and online retailers have just enjoyed their best ever Christmas. All is far from well in retail land but it seems the sales season is going to place a heavy Band Aid over some retailer profits.

But amid the rush to grab a bargain, consumer groups warn shoppers that it's not just the price on the ticket they need to look at but also the retailer's returns and refunds policy. There are many myths regarding consumer rights and shoppers can easily be caught out if they don't know the law before they hit the high street or start browsing online.

"The sales are a really fun time but it doesn't come without its challenges," says Gillian Guy, chief executive of Citizens Advice. "Shoppers can be caught out if they don't know their rights – and mounting costs can mean some people start the new year in debt."

Buying in the sales

First of all, know that your rights don't change just because you're buying goods on sale rather than at full price. It is your statutory right to get your money back, or be offered an exchange or repair, if an item is "damaged, not fit for purpose or not as described". It can be tricky to decide how durable you can expect any given item to be, but the law says goods should last a reasonable amount of time, depending on what they are and how much you pay.

A reasonable person would expect an expensive TV to last longer than a cheap torch, and someone living in a hard-water area may accept that their washing machine doesn't last as long as one elsewhere. The same rules apply if you buy something that comes with a freebie, for example, many mobile phone deals now come with free laptops and games consoles.

"As a customer, you have exactly the same rights when you buy goods that are reduced in a sale as when you buy them at full price. If the shop staff try to fob you off when trying to return sale items, tell them you have right to a refund under the terms of the 1979 Sale of Goods Act. Stand your ground and ask to speak to the store manager if necessary," says Andrew Hagger of the consumer advice site Moneynet.

If goods are on sale because they have a fault and you have been told about this before you hand over any cash, you do not then have the right to return it because of that fault. However, if it is unexpectedly damaged or faulty, you should take the item back as soon as possible, and ideally within four weeks, as this usually means you get a full refund. After this, you may only be offered an exchange or repair.

There is also a six-month cut-off point. Before this, the onus is on the shop to prove the goods they sold were not faulty; after this, you must endeavour to prove they were.

"After six months, you are still entitled to repair or replacement but the burden shifts on to you," says Joanne Lezemore from Which? legal service.

Note that the retailer cannot fob you off to the manufacturer– it is their responsibility. However, many people mistakenly think that retailers have to offer you a full refund on items if you've simply had a change of heart; those that do only allow this as a gesture of goodwill.

"The main thing to remember when you are buying in stores is that that you cannot take something back if you change your mind unless there is a returns policy in place," says Ms Lezemore.

She adds that although some retailers, such as John Lewis and Marks & Spencer, do have fairly generous returns policies, others may not have one at all, or may stipulate that you cannot take off labels if you want a refund, so it is important to check before you shop.

Shopping online

If you're shopping online, the same rules apply and, in fact, you have extra protection due to the Distance Selling Regulations, which give you the legal right to an unconditional cooling-off period, typically of seven days, from the day your items arrive (although this excludes personalised items and perishable goods such as flowers and food).

This means that even if you simply change your mind, you can return goods within seven days for a full refund, although you may have to pay for the return delivery.

You are also entitled to a full refund if an online order arrives late, or if you have not agreed a delivery date, after 30 days. If you do want to send something back, always email or write to the company informing it that you are doing so, and get a postage receipt.

Buying second-hand

If you are shunning the big department-store sales and want to buy your bargains second-hand, you will still have protection under the Sale of Goods Act 1979, but its level will depend on who you are buying from. If you buy a used item from an official company on eBay or from a second-hand high street store, you have full protection. But if you buy from an individual, the rules change. With a private sale, the goods must be as described (and legally owned by the seller) but there is no protection in terms of quality. So, if you buy a size 14 dress and it's actually a size 10, you have a leg to stand on – although this may require you to go through the small claims court to get your money back – but otherwise it's a case of "buyer beware".

Keep your receipt, but don't panic if you lose it

You may think you've lost any entitlement to a refund if you've lost your receipt. But this isn't necessarily true as you can show a credit-card bill or bank statement as proof of purchase.

"If a shop tells you it will only refund you on production of proof of purchase, this doesn't mean you have to have the original till receipt – you can use your bank statement or credit-card statement as proof," says Mr Hagger.

Where you may be caught out, however, is if an item falls in price and you cannot prove how much you paid. If, for example, you had lost your receipt and could only show on a statement that you spent £100 at a store, without being able to prove how much you paid, that retailer only has to refund you for the current cost in that shop – so if it has fallen in price you may lose money.

The best way to pay for big-ticket items in the sales is with a credit card, so that under the Consumer Credit Act if you buy an item worth between £100 and £30,000, the card provider is jointly liable for your purchase. This means you can chase them for a refund if things go belly up.