Personal Finance: No legal right to change your mind

A good return: it is business rather than the law that prompts stores such as John Lewis to offer quibble-free exchanges or refunds DILLON BRYDEN

SOME STORES have built their reputation on a customer-friendly approach to giving money back. Everyone makes mistakes, from clothes that don't look right to a sofa that won't fit through the door.

Marks & Spencer operates one of the best-known returns policies. It will give customers refunds, no questions asked, as long as the goods are in reasonable condition. Customers with receipts can have their money back in cash or refunded to their plastic cards; customers without a receipt will receive credit vouchers. Other leading stores, including Gap, John Lewis and Ikea, have similar policies.

Unfortunately, some companies' generous returns policies have given consumers a false sense of security. Companies that offer "no quibble" returns do so because it is good for their business, not because the law requires them to. Legal protection only applies to consumers who buy faulty goods, not goods they don't like.

"The devil in this is companies that let you take goods back if you change your mind," explains Harriet Hall, legal officer at the National Consumer Council. "You can't do that unless the retailer tells you that you can. They haven't broken their contract.

"Goods have to be safe, fit for purpose and durable, bearing in mind the price you paid for them," she says. "That is your legal guarantee."

The "fit for purpose" rule also includes any particular purpose the shopkeeper mentions either voluntarily, or because the shopper asks. A shopper who takes a purchase home and finds it does not work or is not "fit for purpose" has a right to a refund.

As long as he or she complains to the seller promptly, there is no obligation to accept anything other than cash, even if the shop offers a repair, replacement or credit note. This applies even if the goods were in a sale, but not if they are described as imperfect in some way, such as shop soiled.

These basic rights have a time limit. They apply until the buyer "accepts" the goods; this happens automatically after a "reasonable" period of time. There is no fixed legal definition of how long this is, as it depends on the product, but if there is a problem, it is worth telling the shop immediately.

If goods are unsafe and cause an injury, or damage costing more than pounds 275, buyers have rights against the manufacturer. Otherwise, the complaint is always with the shop, whatever the shopkeeper says.

Once a consumer has accepted the goods, he or she is only entitled to compensation, not a refund, if the product fails. This normally means a repair or the cost of a repair. Usually, it is less trouble to claim under the manufacturer's warranty. This might also be more generous, offering a full free replacement. Outside the warranty, consumers still have statutory rights.

A court might decide that a washing machine that failed after 54 weeks in normal use was not durable enough to be of satisfactory quality - but few consumers would relish the inconvenience and expense of legal action to prove it.

the knowledge

Warranties and return policies often state: "This does not affect your statutory rights." This means what it says. Whatever the benefits of the warranty, consumers still have rights under law (with the shop, not the manufacturer).

If you are unsure whether something is suitable, ask about the refund policy before you buy. If you buy something that is unsuitable or if it fails, tell the shop quickly: delaying reduces your rights.

The same rights apply to sale goods - but shops are free to exclude sale items from extra benefits such as no-quibble refunds. There is no need for a receipt in order to return goods, but proof of purchase, such as a credit card slip, will speed up matters.

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