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Regretting a recent impulse purchase? These are your rights when it comes to returns

PHOTOGRAPHY BY JOLIE PRICE

WORDS BY ELOUISE DAVIS

Know your rights when it comes to your wallet.

Let’s just preface this whole discussion with the knowledge that this year, we’re lucky to be doing any shopping at all. It’s been a weird, rough time and for many, retail therapy is off the table for the moment.

But our dollars in 2020 were hard-earned, so here are some tips for keeping on top of your consumer rights, returning that impulse sale purchase and what to do if your loved ones didn’t get around to reading the official 2020 Fashion Journal gift guide this year.

A rundown on your rights

There’s nothing worse than the feeling of being ripped off – when you buy something and it arrives broken, is of terrible quality, or just doesn’t do what it’s supposed to.

Lucky for us, if something you buy is dodgy, broken or unsafe, you’re entitled to a remedy under the Australian Consumer Law, as most products and services are covered by consumer guarantees that promise an item will work properly and do what it’s advertised to do.

You don’t have to do anything to put these guarantees into effect – anything you’re sold must automatically be of acceptable quality, match the provided description, be safe and fit for purpose.

If a product doesn’t meet these requirements, you’re entitled to some sort of remedy from the company you bought it from, which might be in the form of a repair, replacement or refund. A minor problem (like a loose thread) might just warrant a repair, and a major problem (think, a hole in your shoe) probably justifies a replacement or refund.

Seems pretty straightforward? Yes, but there are a few situations to keep in mind that differentiate getting what you paid for the item from just wanting a return when you’ve changed your mind.

What if it says final sale?

Probably the biggest misconception when it comes to consumer guarantees is that they don’t apply to discounted items, especially if there’s a big sign saying ‘final sale’, or no refunds under any circumstances.

News flash – if a product is genuinely defective, these words are meaningless. A cheat sheet on how a brand can limit returns for sale items would look something like this:

  • ‘No refund on sale items’ = this would only be okay if it didn’t apply to a faulty product
  • ‘Credit only for sale items’ = unless that sale item is dodgy
  • ‘No refund for change of mind’ = this would be acceptable

Guarantees don’t apply when the problem was communicated to you before the purchase was made and if that was clearly the reason for the reduced price in the first place (just as we all know you can’t return something you found on the sample rack at a warehouse sale).

What if it was a gift?

A gift recipient has the same rights as the actual purchaser of a product, provided they can show some sort of proof of purchase.

Don’t let a store lead you to believe that this has to be the original receipt itself; if you don’t have this, a credit card statement, confirmation email or some other serial number linked with the purchase is usually a reasonable substitute.

What you also don’t need is the original packaging; if a product is faulty, it’s not an excuse for the store to forsake you a remedy just because you don’t have the box.

Another thing that a store can’t do is refuse you help and send you straight to the brand or manufacturer directly. Your recourse is with the company from which you bought the product, and it’s their problem to take this up with the manufacturer.

What if you bought secondhand or handmade?

If you’re buying from a reputable reseller like The Real Real, an Etsy store or a consignment service, you’re still entitled to the consumer guarantees. But the age, price and condition communicated clearly at the time of purchase are all taken into account in their application.

There’s no specific time frame for how long the guarantees apply; this depends on the type of product, expected use, and a reasonable length of time that it’s expected to last.

So if you’re buying a product that’s already on its second lifetime, the expectation of what can be expected from that product is taken into consideration. With any goods – vintage or otherwise – if you’re made aware of a fault before you bought it, the guarantees don’t apply to that flaw.

The same can’t be said for something you bought at a holiday market, a garage sale or end of year school fete, which are generally a bridge too far for the consumer guarantees to apply.

What if it didn’t arrive in time?

If something doesn’t get there in time, it’s unlikely you’ll have much recourse. Deliveries are bound to be a struggle with the uptick in online shopping lately, and you might have to take the hit.

If you paid expensive shipping for a guaranteed delivery date and your package didn’t make it you can usually push for a shipping refund, but this wouldn’t extend to the item itself.

If your order arrived damaged in the post – even if you think this was due to the actions of the courier – take your complaint to the company you bought it from (who might have to take up the issue with the postman from their end).

Ditto if your order just doesn’t arrive at all, but be wary of whether you gave permission for your package to be left in a safe place, as you’ll probably still be considered to have received the delivery.

And if you ordered online from an overseas business, don’t let it tell you that there’s nothing it can do about a faulty product because it’s in another country; if a brand sells product to Australia, it’s bound by the Australian Consumer Law.

Just didn’t love what was under the Christmas tree, or made a few regret purchases on Boxing Day?

It’s the thought that counts? If it works fine but just isn’t you, you don’t have many options unless the store has a discretionary return policy, but there are no obligations when it comes to change of mind.

Retailer return policies outside of the consumer guarantees are completely on the store’s terms, and it can set the rules about timeframes, price matching, condition of the goods, whether you’re entitled to a refund/exchange/credit note, and whether it applies to sale items (this is where ‘final sale’ actually means something). If the store does have such a policy, it has to apply it to every customer equally and fairly.

Other situations that don’t qualify as faulty are when something doesn’t fit, or the style or colour don’t work for you. Same goes for a product that breaks if you use it in an abnormal manner, or if you bought it at full price and then found it cheaper somewhere else on Boxing Day.

If you’ve simply changed your mind and aren’t sure whether the company will take it back, it’s better to act quickly while the product is still on the shelves and can be sold to someone else. You’ll fare better if the item is in-season, with original packaging and as close in condition as possible to how it looked when it left the store.

One thing you shouldn’t do is unilaterally decide that you’re entitled to a refund when you used a pay later service like Afterpay, and simply stop paying the instalment amounts. Even if you’re covered by the consumer guarantees, let the process run its course and continue making payments until the service determines from the retailer that you’re actually entitled to a remedy, and refunds you accordingly.

Trying to use Afterpay to dodge a return you couldn’t otherwise achieve will result in penalty fees and you’ll ultimately end up paying for the item (plus some) in the long run.

Does COVID impact your rights?

Not strictly, but remember the unique challenges of 2020 when approaching any business (especially small ones) this year. It’s unreasonable to get upset about a delivery delay due to COVID, or an unexpected business closure that means you can’t pick up a gift from the store.

A brand can also charge what they want for a product that’s in high demand, for example, a designer face mask can cost $100 even if it does nothing more than a $2 disposable one. Stores can also choose to close their changing rooms due to COVID, and can refuse returns if it doesn’t fit when you get home, provided there’s nothing wrong with the product (even though you couldn’t try it on in-store).

On the other hand, a retailer can’t refuse you a refund on health grounds due to COVID if a product is genuinely faulty; they have to provide you with a remedy even if there are health concerns with the return of a product.

Another thing to consider is gift vouchers; if a business closes down, a gift card holder doesn’t have many rights, so don’t leave vouchers lying around too long, particularly if you hear rumblings of a brand going under.

How to go about getting a remedy

When it comes down to it, a defective purchase isn’t the worst thing that’s happened of late, so take into consideration the many challenges faced by small businesses at the moment when it comes to seeking a refund or return.

Know your rights before approaching the store, but understand that not every tired and busy retail worker will know the same and that a broken product isn’t their fault. If you’re not getting the help you need, ask for a manager or call the retailer’s customer service line.

For a big-ticket item, you could try the ACCC Complaint Letter Tool, and in extreme circumstances, you can always contact your bank to reverse the charge if you have a reasonable basis to show that the store isn’t behaving fairly.

For more help on consumer rights, look into the ACCC website or your state consumer affairs regulator.

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