Advice: Refunds, exchanges, returns and sale goods...10 questions answered

Pat Hutchinson MBE.
Pat Hutchinson MBE.

By Pat Hutchinson MBE, District Manager, Newtownabbey CAB

1. Can I change a gift I’ve had second thoughts about?

You have no legal right to do this. You have a right in law to return goods to a shop and obtain a refund only if they are not of satisfactory quality, not as described or not fit for purpose. No one has a right to exchange goods just because they change their mind or have made a bad decision. Of course many shops, in the interests of good customer service, have their own returns policy, which may involve exchanging goods or giving you a credit note. But unless the goods are defective they are not obliged to let you exchange them or give you your money back.

2. Can I get a refund on something I bought online?

Your right to return something you just don’t like is stronger if you bought it online. Under the Consumer Protection (Distance Selling) Regulations, which cover all goods purchased remotely, such as by internet, telephone or mail order, you do have a right to return goods within a specified period, since you have not had a chance to examine them first. Some items are excluded, such as food and other perishables, personalised items and CDs and DVDs where a seal has been broken.

The right to cancel a purchase starts immediately you make the purchase and ends seven working days after the date the goods are received (the “cooling-off period”). You don’t actually have to return the goods during the cooling-off period, but you do need to send written confirmation that you are cancelling the sale. Once the order has been cancelled, you have a duty to “restore” the goods to the seller. Internet and mail order companies these days offer reply-paid returns envelopes for unwanted goods, or will arrange to pick them 
up. However, you need to check the sales details, because some firms require the purchaser to return goods at their own expense. The seller must always pay the cost of returning a faulty item.

3. Can I exchange something I received as a gift?

The contract of sale is made between the shop and the purchaser. So even if a gift you have received turns out to be faulty you could have problems getting a refund or even getting it exchanged.

The giver of a gift who is not sure of your size or is worried you’ve already got the item they are giving can however transfer the refund and exchange rights to the recipient by obtaining a gift receipt or by writing on the original receipt that the item is a gift.

4. How do I exchange a gift I have received that was bought online?

Once again the contract is between the purchaser and the retailer. You will also still need proof of purchase, and money will probably be returned to the card that was debited for the sale. So, both these requirements will probably involve getting the giver of the gift to return it for you.

5. Can I get my money back if the goods don’t arrive on time?

Only if the retailer promised delivery before Christmas, in which case that promise forms part of the contract of sale. If you’ve bought online you can return goods under the Distance Selling Regulations if your gifts haven’t turned up and you had to rush out to buy something else to give on Christmas Day. If you ordered from a shop and a delivery date did not form part of the contract you may not be able to do so.

6. Do I have to contact the courier to find out what happened to my lost order?

No, you don’t. It is the retailer’s duty to ensure that the goods are delivered intact and in good time. However, many couriers offer a website tracking service and it can be useful to see how far your order has got, and even perhaps negotiate with the courier about delivery times to suit you. If you get a card through your door saying that delivery was attempted, it makes sense to follow instructions to arrange another time or collect the package yourself. But if you order goes missing it is up to the retailer to reimburse you, not the courier.

7. What happens if the shop I’ve ordered goods from goes bust?

If you’ve paid with cash or by cheque you become an “unsecured creditor” of the business and will have to wait until the business is sold or wound up to get money back – and the sum you receive may be well short of what you paid.

If you are placing an order for goods worth more than £100, you should always aim to pay at least part of the price by credit card (and if you don’t want to pay interest, settle the bill in full as soon as it arrives). Paying with a credit card offers legal protection under section 75 of the Consumer Credit Act, which makes the credit card company jointly liable with the shop or service provider for making amends if the supplier defaults. This means you could get your money back if the item is faulty or not as described, fails to arrive or the retailer goes bust.

To obtain protection each item covered must be worth at least £100 and less than £30,000, but you need only pay some of the full price by card to obtain full protection. This can be useful if there is a credit card surcharge. So, say you order a chair worth £200, you can pay a deposit of £20 on your card and £180 in cash and obtain full protection against default up to £200.

You may be able to obtain a refund if you pay by debit card under a system known as “chargeback”. There is no minimum purchase price, but you must make your claim within 120 days of becoming aware that the retailer has defaulted.

8. What about gift vouchers?

Victims of the collapse of big name high street retailers left holding worthless gift cards learned to their cost that when a company goes bust a voucher may not be worth the paper it is printed on. Be wary about who you buy vouchers from – big companies are best, but not foolproof, as Woolworths and HMV customers found out (although some were subsequently honoured after a period of uncertainty). If you receive vouchers spend them as quickly as possible. This is doubly important because, as well as the risk of default by the issuing company, many vouchers have an expiry date.

Consider buying a voucher that covers more than one store. These are gift cards that essentially work like prepaid credit cards and include the One4All card, available online or at Post Office counters, or the American Express Gift Card. Don’t confuse these prepaid-type cards with single retailer cards that cover a multitude of brands and outlets all owned by the same company, where if one goes bust they all go bust.

9. If the gift is faulty do I have to send it back to the manufacturer?

If goods are faulty, you should return them to the store. The Sale of Goods Act says that it is the retailer’s responsibility to ensure that goods are of saleable quality. So don’t be fobbed off if a shop assistant tells you that you need to send the item back to the manufacturer - you don’t. For more information go to

10. What about sale goods?

The Sale of Goods Act also applies to goods bought in a sale, which must be as described and fit for purpose, no matter how much they are reduced. However, that doesn’t stop a shop selling a raincoat with buttons missing or a split seam for a knock-down price as long as it tells you that that’s what it’s doing - perhaps with a note on the label. The coat should still be wearable once you’ve done a bit of home mending, and the fact it was in the sale doesn’t mean the shop can get away with selling it if it shrinks when you go out in the rain (not fit for purpose) or the label says it’s waxed cotton and turns out to be nylon (not as described).

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