Countdown to Christmas comes with a warning for consumers

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As online sales continue to surge and retailers rev up ahead of the festive period, an Associate at Ashtons Legal, gives a reminder of what to watch out for, and what protection consumers have when buying those carefully chosen presents for family and friends.

As the retail sector revs up for the all-important Christmas selling season, online sales continue to grow. The first Monday in December has become known in the retail trade as ‘Cyber Monday’ because of an annual spike in online sales, which is said to happen following the last pay day before Christmas.

For many, online shopping seems so much easier than stomping round the high street, but with the growing number of web-based retailers, many of whom cannot be identified offline, consumers need to take care to find out who they are dealing with and move quickly if there’s a problem – such as damaged goods or where things are not as advertised.

New regulations are in the pipeline, with a draft Consumer Rights Bill and the implementation of parts of the European Consumer Rights Directive, all intended to give consumers more protection, including extended cancellation periods for online orders and clearer time limits for complaints. Until these are introduced, there are two main pieces of legislation that protect you when you’re buying those presents.

Firstly, there’s the Sale of Goods Act, which applies whether you’re buying on the high street or by mail order or online. This says that anything you buy must be as described, of satisfactory quality and fit for purpose. The purpose could be a specific purpose that you asked the retailer about and for which they confirmed it would be suitable. This is particularly relevant these days when people are looking for technological compatibility – for example, if you were to ask if a mini-speaker system will work with a particular model of smartphone and the retailer says yes.

If anything goes wrong with the purchase, any claim must be made against the retailer as your rights are against the retailer who sold it to you, not the original manufacturer. If the product is faulty, you can choose to reject it and get a refund, but currently the law says you must do this within “a reasonable time”. What is reasonable depends on the product and how obvious the fault is. Generally, it’s best to act quickly and aim to return things within the first four weeks. If it’s too late to reject and receive a refund, you still have a right for faulty goods to be replaced or repaired.

And if those Christmas tree lights are not just faulty, they also set fire to your tree, then you are likely to be looking for compensation for the damage. Make sure you collect and keep any evidence and try to avoid carrying out repairs or covering up damage until you’ve made your complaint and asked the retailer to deal with the claim.

But if you’re buying online or by mail order, you have added protection through the Consumer Protection (Distance Selling) Regulations, which give you the right to cancel the order and get your money back if goods are not delivered on time (generally within 30 days if no other date was agreed). You may also be able to claim compensation for anything that arrives late, or not at all. You also have the right to a cooling-off period in which to cancel the order. Although there are some exceptions, such as perishables or goods which are highly personalised, for most goods the period is one of seven working days from the day after the goods are delivered.

It is also worth remembering that if your order is lost in transit, or damaged during delivery, then it’s up to the trader to sort this out. The goods remain their responsibility, not the delivery company, until the time they are delivered to you, so it’s not up to you to prove goods were damaged during transit or on delivery – a growing problem where delivery drivers may leave packages unattended or out in the rain. And if you’re asked to sign anything saying you have inspected goods, just write ‘uninspected’ on the delivery note.

You are entitled to your money back if the goods don’t match up to the description you were given or you can ask for a discount or a replacement. If the goods don’t meet their description, are not fit for purpose or are not of a satisfactory quality, you shouldn’t have to pay for sending the items back.

But distance selling regulations only apply where a trader routinely does business through distance selling, which is assessed by whether they have standard procedures and contracts for this. If it’s a Christmas ‘pop-up’ or a supplier who does not regularly sell in this way, then you will probably have to rely on just the Sale of Goods Act.

If you’re buying online from a company based outside the UK, the seller’s terms of business will probably say that the law of the seller’s country will apply. However if the seller is in the European Union, they cannot deprive you of the consumer rights given to you by UK law – even if their terms of supply say that some other law, for example French law, will apply.  The bonus of this is that the consumer has the benefit of whichever law is more generous on any particular point. If the terms say nothing about applicable law, and the seller is based in the EU, then UK law will apply if the customer is resident in the UK.

It is also worth remembering that where you pay for the goods with a credit or debit card, you may be able to make a claim against the credit or debit company instead of the trader.

Finally, watch out for fakes. Most of us are probably well aware of the huge number of advertisements for counterfeit branded clothing, jewellery and perfumes that can be found online, but concern is also growing over fake food and drink that is being offered, which is likely to be produced without proper hygiene and food safety standards. More than 40 people in Poland and the Czech Republic died last year after consuming counterfeit vodka which contained methanol.

If you’re unsure about an online site for any reason, make some simple checks, such as seeing if you can find customer reviews on other sites and always make sure you’re on a secure page before providing any credit card details.

Happy Christmas shopping!


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