The outbreak of COVID-19 has dramatically changed how we shop and how retailers operate.
High street stores have shut their doors, online deliveries are soaring and everyday products we once took for granted have become nearly impossible to get hold of.
As we all adjust to a new way of life, Which? takes a look at how retailers are adapting to serve their customers, and explains how this might affect your shopping experience and consumer rights over the coming weeks.
You can scroll down to read the whole article or use the links below to skip to a particular section.
- High street stores close: what does it mean for refunds and gift cards?
- Online stores: which retailers aren’t accepting orders?
- What to do if a retailer goes bust
- Games, ebooks and digital goods: your rights to return
- Contactless deliveries: how do they work and are they safe?
- What are people buying during isolation?
- Product restrictions
- Online marketplaces: price gouging and fake products
- Buy now pay later schemes
- Vouchers for meals, trips and experiences
Updated on 3 April to include updates from the Royal Mail on service disruption.
You can keep up to date on our latest coverage over on our coronavirus advice hub.
High street shops close: what does it mean for refunds and gift cards?
The government imposed a lockdown across the UK on 23 March, ordering all shops selling ‘non-essential’ products to close.
So what does that mean if you’ve bought something in-store recently and want to return it?
- John Lewis: will honour returns for store purchases made on or after 18 February 2020 for up to 35 days after stores reopen. It’s also working on creating a collect and return service for faulty items. If you have a gift card due to expire soon, you can renew it for another 24 months on the website.
- Marks and Spencer: stores will now sell only food. Its returns policy is 90 days until further notice; please don’t return non-essential items at the moment as teams are focusing on food operations. Gift cards will expire two years after the last transaction. If yours is running out soon, check your balance online to extend its expiry date by another two years.
- Primark: products bought on or after 1 February 2020 can be returned for 28 days after stores reopen. It’s also extended gift card expiry dates for an extra 12 months.
- Many other companies are offering similar policies – check with the store you bought from to see exactly what their policy is.
- Find out more: your rights when returning goods
Online stores: which retailers aren’t accepting orders?
Other retailers, including Next, River Island and TK Maxx, are suspending online orders for the time-being.
This comes after concerns were raised around social distancing measures in warehouses.
If you’ve ordered something from an online store that’s now closed, or have a return to make, here’s what you need to know:
- Next customers can still make returns via its courier collection service, and gift card expiry dates will be extended. If customers don’t receive their deliveries over the next few days, Next says it will automatically cancel and refund the order. If you’re awaiting a delivery, it’s best to check your delivery status to see if it’s been cancelled or not.
- TK Maxx has assured us that any recent orders will be processed and fulfilled as normal. It’s also accepting returns up to 30 days after stores have reopened. TK Maxx and Homesense gift cards never expire.
- River Island is yet to get back to us about its updated policy. If you’re awaiting an order, make sure to keep an eye on your delivery status and get in touch with them if you’re concerned.
What to do if a retailer goes bust
Laura Ashley was the first well-known retailer to collapse as a result of the coronavirus outbreak – and many other companies are struggling.
With many high street stores struggling even before the coronavirus lockdown came into force, it’s likely we’ll see others fall into administration – in fact the Centre for Retail Research has warned that 20,000 shops will not reopen their doors.
If a store you’ve buying something from goes bust, here’s what you can do to get your money back for a faulty or unwanted item:
- If you spent more than £100 on your credit card, you’re protected by Section 75 of the Consumer Credit Act and can contact your credit provider for a refund.
- If you paid by debit card, you can make a chargeback claim with your bank.
- You may be able to use a manufacturer’s or other third-party warranty if you have one that’s still valid.
- You can also submit a claim in writing to the administrator explaining how much you’re owed and what it’s for.
|Who’s gone bust?||What does it mean for customers?|
|Laura Ashley||Laura Ashley’s online store is still up and running, and the company has said it’s working hard to fulfill all orders. Read the latest here.|
|BrightHouse||There will be no new rent-to-own or cash loan lending but customers still need top pay their debts and there will be ongoing support for existing customers. Read the latest here.|
|Carluccio’s||It has fallen into administration. The chains 71 UK restaurants remain closed due to government coronavirus restrictions meaning customers will be unable to spend remaining gift voucher balances.|
Games, ebooks and digital goods: your rights to return
You might find yourself buying new games, ebooks or TV subscription services to pass the time over the next few weeks.
If you’re not aware of your consumer rights when purchasing digital products, it’s worth reading up before buying.
As with physical purchases, you’re entitled to a free repair or replacement if your digital goods are faulty, of unsatisfactory quality, or not as described.
So, if your ebook isn’t working or your game doesn’t live up to its description, you can get in touch with the retailer to let them know.
If they can’t repair or replace it, you’re entitled to a full or partial refund.
You can also change your mind after buying a digital download, but you often have to do so within the 14-day cooling-off period, and you must cancel the purchase before downloading it.
So if you’re not sure whether you want to keep the product yet, make sure you let the retailer know not to send you any download codes until the 14-day period is over.
- Find out more: six ways tech can keep you entertained while self-isolating
Contactless deliveries: how do they work and are they safe?
Gone (for now) are the days of signing for parcels; the Royal Mail, DPD, Hermes, Yodel and ParcelForce are now carrying out contactless deliveries.
Most courier services will now log the name of the person accepting the delivery once the parcel has been left in an agreed safe place.
If no safe place has been agreed, most couriers will leave the parcel at the door. They’ll then knock and step aside to a safe distance while you retrieve the item.
CollectPlus is also still operating. Shops will have a designated spot where couriers leave the parcels, to avoid any contact.
Your parcels might arrive later than expected over the next few weeks.
The Post Office has said its absence rates are double what they normally are at this time of year. As a result, it can’t guarantee deliveries by 1pm the next working day.
Special Delivery parcels may also be delayed. If you ordered a delivery to arrive by 9am the next working day, it will now arrive by 12pm instead.
And if you ordered a delivery to arrive by 1pm the next working day, it will arrive by 9pm instead.
Any post going to care homes will be delivered to a central point, like the reception area, to reduce contact with the elderly as much as possible.
What if your parcel doesn’t show up?
If your delivery is late or doesn’t turn up, you still have consumer rights to get your money back.
Retailers have to deliver within the timeframe promised in your contract, and if no timeframe has been agreed, the retailer must deliver it within 30 days of your order.
So, if you’ve been waiting a long time for your order, you are within your rights to cancel it and get a refund. You can download our letter template to start your cancellation.
Can you catch coronavirus from parcels?
Public Health England (PHE) has said that, though there’s still a lot we don’t know about COVID-19, the amount of infectious virus on a contaminated surface is likely to have decreased significantly by 24 hours, and even more so after a further 48 hours.
It assured us that all the appropriate infection and prevention control measures are in place with couriers and delivery services to reduce risk to the public.
However, it’s best to follow PHE’s advice to wash your hands after handling any parcels.
- Find out more: how to clean your home effectively
What are people buying during isolation?
Most of us will indulge in more screen-time over the next few weeks, but off-screen hobbies and activities are on the rise too.
The Historical Sampler Company, which sells cross-stitch patterns and tapestries, has seen a huge increase in sales over the past two weeks.
Co-director Suzanne Bullman said that ‘it’s gone bonkers – even the more expensive items are selling fast’.
Suzanne puts it down to the mental health benefits of crafts, which can help you engage in something mindful while at home.
Similarly, the Argos website is experiencing high demand for jigsaws and board games, and is currently running low on a number of products. Its breadmakers have been completely sold out in recent days, too.
If you’re thinking of trying your hand at a new hobby, make sure you shop around for a good deal, and be aware you may have to wait a little bit longer for your delivery.
- Find out more: Which? Best Buy breadmakers
All the major supermarkets have introduced measures to try to ensure that everyone can buy everyday basics and essentials.
You can find out more about how these stores are responding to coronavirus in our supermarkets story, which we’re updating as announcements happen.
But it’s not just supermarkets that are rationing products.
Apple announced last week that it would limit shoppers to two iPhones per person, as its factories tried to keep up with increased demand.
These restrictions have now been lifted, but there are still some in place for certain MacBook and iPad models.
Boots has also placed restrictions on selected ranges on its website, including:
- Baby milk and sterilising products
- Children’s medicines
- Cold and cough products
- Feminine hygiene products
- Hand sanitisers and hand wash
- Pain relief products
- Tissues and hand wipes
Products are limited to either two, four or six per customer. Any product containing paracetamol has been limited to one per customer.
- Find out more: medicines shortage – what’s going on?
Online marketplaces: price gouging and fake products
Dodgy coronavirus products have been rife on Amazon and eBay in recent weeks, as shoppers turn to online platforms for products sold out in supermarkets.
Amazon says it has removed ‘tens of thousands’ of products from sale, including fake treatments and cures for COVID-19.
We’ve also found examples of surge pricing for cleaning products, thermometers and baby formula, as well as listings for used hand sanitisers.
Stay vigilant when buying from these online marketplaces and if you come across anything that looks suspicious, let us know on Which? Conversation.
Buy now pay later (BNPL) schemes
Klarna, Clearpay and Laybuy allow you to pay for items after you receive them – normally 30 days later or in a series of instalments.
A whole raft of retailers, from fashion brands to airlines, now offer a BNPL finance option.
You may be tempted to use one over the next few weeks if you have less money coming in, but it’s important to understand the risks if you do end up missing repayments.
Before signing up, make sure you read our tips on how to use buy now pay later schemes safely.
What if you’ve used BNPL and can’t afford to pay?
if you’ve already used one of the schemes but are struggling to make repayments during the outbreak, it’s best to let the scheme know as soon as possible.
Both Klarna and Laybuy have encouraged customers who can’t make repayments during this difficult period to get in touch and discuss other options.
How about holidays booked using BNPL?
If you’ve used Klarna to pay for a holiday that’s now been cancelled, Klarna has advised you to speak with the travel provider directly.
It says it will only be able to refund you once the retailer has agreed to the reimbursement.
If you’re yet to pay for your travel or hotel booking, Klarna says it will pause all invoice and payment plans for 30 days while you try to resolve your claim with the travel company.
Vouchers for meals, trips and experiences
Many people will have bought or been given vouchers for meals, trips or experiences for Christmas last year – some of which may be expiring soon.
Virgin Experiences has said that so long as government restrictions apply, it’ll be offering customers either rolling three-month extensions on its vouchers or the opportunity to exchange to a different one.
It also said it will consider refunds on a case-by-case basis as the situation develops.
Wowcher, too, is planning to extend validity on its travel and experience deals, so customers can use them at a later date when restrictions on movement are lifted.
Customers who wish to cancel completely are currently only being offered credit.
Groupon is extending vouchers, wherever possible, by 12 months, and will notify customers as expiry dates are extended. It’s yet to get back to us about refunds, but we’ll update this story as we hear more.
- Find out more: what are my rights with gift vouchers and cards?