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17 Mar 2018

Which? reveals the online retailers getting your refund rights wrong

We explain what your online shopping rights are and reveal the 12 companies that have made changes as a result of our investigation

Big-name retailers including Iceland, Aldi and Morrisons have been misinforming or failing to provide clear information to customers about their online returns rights, our latest investigation has discovered.

We reviewed the information that retailers provide about returning unwanted and faulty goods ordered online, by searching for advice on their websites in the way that a shopper is most likely to. We assessed the advice given in returns policies and frequently asked questions sections, and in the terms and conditions if we couldn't easily find advice elsewhere.

Out of the 46 retailer and supermarket websites we looked at between December 2017 and February 2018, 45 had misleading or unclear information about your returns rights.

Getting your rights wrong

Common problems included retailers failing to make a distinction between their own online store policies for returns and consumers' statutory rights, and failing to offer any timelines for faulty goods returns.

Some retailers set a time period for unwanted or faulty goods returns that was less than what shoppers are legally entitled to. Others presented misleading information that wrongly encouraged customers to pursue faulty goods claims with warranty providers first.

Which? is concerned that misleading and unclear returns information is contributing to widespread confusion on returns and faulty goods rights and warranties, leaving many consumers out of pocket.

And while it's possible that better quality information was available elsewhere on the sites that we looked at, the well-signposted returns pages we reviewed could have led shoppers astray or left them confused about the options available to them under the law.

If you'vebeen stung with a faulty product, we canhelp you to complain to get a refund, repair, or replacement, for free.

Misleading faulty goods policies

Our investigation found that 12 out of the 46 retailer sites we assessed provided misleading information about faulty goods returns.

Under the Consumer Rights Act, all products on sale in the UK must be of satisfactory quality, fit for purpose and as described. If a product does not meet the standards of the Consumer Rights Act, the item is deemed faulty and consumers have the right to request a refund from the retailer up to 30 days from the date they receive the product.

After 30 days but within the first six months of receiving the goods, you're entitled to a repair or replacement under the Consumer Rights Act, with the option of a refund if the repair or replacement was unsuccessful.

Misleading conditions included pushing shoppers to a warranty provider, requiring items to be returned in original packaging, insisting on a receipt (where bank statement is fine), not accepting the return of faulty personalised items, outlining timelines of less than the statutory minimum, and offering different rules for different types of products.

Our research found that supermarket Aldi had worryingly misleading guidance in relation to faulty goods, which incorrectly directed customers to the warranty company as the first port of call for a faulty item bought within the past 12 months, rather than itself as the retailer. Ebuyer also misleadingly encouraged people to a warranty repair if they discovered a fault after 30 days.

Both do mention that you have statutory rights in addition to any manufacturer's warranty for faulty goods, but do not explain what these are. It is the primary responsibility of the retailer, not the warranty provider, to deal with faulty goods claims - even if the warranty has a more generous timeline for returns.

The returns information we looked at for AbeBooks, Costco, Fragrance Direct, and Waitrose was also labelled by our experts as misleading, as they limited the length of time shoppers have to return faulty items without stating that statutory rights also apply.

Asda failed to separate out online returns from in-store returns for faulty goods. Using Asda's website, shoppers could be left confused as to whether or not the in-store returns policy on the website applied to returning a faulty product purchased online.

We also struggled to find information which clearly referred to faulty goods on Ted Baker, Lakeland and Adidas. At best, this may leave customers with little choice but to contact their customer services team for assistance. At worst, failing to have this information - or having it poorly signposted - could leave consumers out of pocket with faulty goods that they aren't sure whether they can return, or how to return them.

Your statutory rights for faulty goods returns always go beyond the stores' own faulty goods returns policy and warranty information.

Unclear information on faulty goods returns timelines

Almost all of the retailers were unclear on the timelines for returning faulty goods, with many offering no information on timelines at all - just a prompt to give them a call.

Some retailers including Boden, Lakeland, Tesco Direct and Sainsbury's had generous faulty goods returns policies, typically offering shoppers up to a year to return faulty goods for a refund. Lakeland's returns policy lasted up to three years. But while some mentioned the customer also had statutory rights, none of these retailers made it clear that the consumer's rights to a repair, refund or replacement actually go beyond 12 months.

The difference is that for the first six months, it is presumed that the fault would have been there since the shopper took possession of the goods - unless the retailer can prove otherwise. After this time, and for up to six years, the burden switches to consumer to prove that the product was faulty at the time of delivery.

Unclear timelines and misleading conditions could confuse shoppers into thinking they are out of time to return faulty goods. As a fault can develop at any time, there are many instances where customers would need to rely on the Consumer Rights Act to get their issue resolved, especially if the store's own returns policy doesn't go far enough.

What is a statutory right?

The phrase 'This does not affect your statutory rights' often appears in the T&Cs or at the end of store policies on retailer websites. You'll also see it on the receipts or shop notices of retailers. But what does it mean?

When you buy anything from a retailer, you're entering into a contract with them and you're protected by implied rights set by the law. These rights are often referred to as your statutory rights.

By including this phrase, retailers are doing the minimum required to make you aware that you have legal rights in addition to the store policy.

The most importantstatutory rights for consumers to understand come from two pieces of legislation: the Consumer Rights Act and the Consumer Contracts Regulations.

Conditions and exemptions for unwanted online returns

When buying online, you have extra rights to send back items you don't want. Your statutory rights under the Consumer Contracts Regulations allow you to cancel and return, for any reason, unwanted goods ordered online within the maximum time frame of 28 days. The product doesn't need to be faulty for you to return it, and there are only a few exemptions.

These include CDs, DVDs or software if you've broken the seal on the wrapping, perishable items and tailor-made or personalised items. They also include goods with a seal for health protection and hygiene reasons that's been broken, and goods that have been mixed inseparably with other items after delivery.

Our investigation found five retailers had additional requirements on the consumer in their store policies. These misleading conditions included insisting on cellophane wrapping needing to be intact, goods needing to be returned unopened and a refusal to accept online returns for goods bought in error. Misleading conditions like these could prevent the consumer from returning the goods if they relied on the story policy alone.

For example, Allbeauty, Beauty Bay and Feelunique say that consumers can only return unwanted items if they have been unopened. This is an unreasonable generalisation, as the shopper should be able to handle the goods as if they were in a store - unless it is an item sealed for hygiene purposes.

Supermarket Iceland's online returns policy for unwanted goods was unlawful. It incorrectly stated it would not accept returns on items bought in error, or if a customer had changed their mind - failing to highlight whether this applied only to perishable goods.

Iceland told us: 'We do not accept that the returns policy previously outlined on our website was unlawful, but we concede that it was insufficiently detailed and were happy to expand it as soon as this was requested. We are grateful to Which? for drawing this issue to our attention.'

As with faulty goods returns, there will be many occasions where customers would need to rely on the rights they have outlined in the Consumer Contracts Regulations, in addition to retailers' own returns policies to return unwanted purchases. Misleading advice could result in online shoppers making poor decisions or failing to exercise their online returns rights.

Incorrect timelines for unwanted online returns

The Consumer Contracts Regulations gives you the right to cancel your order any time from the moment you place it, and up to 14 days from the day you receive your goods. You just need to notify the retailer of your wish to cancel your order - by email, for example. You then have a further 14 days from the date you notify the retailer of your cancellation to return the goods.

Retailers including BeautyBay, Mac Cosmetics and Apple displayed the wrong returns information on part of their websites, which appeared to be a confused interpretation of the Consumer Contracts Regulations.

In the information we read, these retailers stated that shoppers had 14 days from the date of receiving goods to return them if they no longer want them - but this is incorrect.

Consumers actually have 14 days to notify the retailer that they wish to cancel their order from the date they receive the goods, and then a further 14 days after cancellation to actually return the goods.

Morrisons also had incorrect information on its returns and refunds FAQs which limited the cancellation period to seven days for non-perishable products, and The Body Shop offered conflicting timelines for returning unwanted opened and unopened products in an FAQ explaining its online returns policy.

The retailers' incorrect interpretation of the rules could prevent their customers from returning goods they no longer want, by curtailing in the 28-day time frame that the law makes allowance for.

Setting the online returns standard

But it's not all doom and gloom. Our investigation also uncovered some online retailers offering their own generous returns policies, which also informed people of their statutory rights.

Richer Sounds, for example, displays exemplary guidance for faulty goods and online returns. And Amazon, Costco, Ebay, Screwfix and Wiggle also had commendable advice for returning unwanted goods, which Wiggle has just further improved.

Which? win

Of the 46 retailers we looked at, 10 made changes to the information we highlighted: Aldi, AO.com, Apple, Ebuyer, Iceland, Lakeland, M&S, Ocado, Tesco Direct and Wiggle. Two retailers - Lego Shop and The Body Shop- made changes to their terms after we told them about our findings, and are reviewing the returns information we raised. In addition to the changes it's already made, Apple told us it intends to update the incorrect information we highlighted on its timelines in the next few weeks. A further seven retailers told us they will be reviewing their returns advice in the coming months.

It's heartening that some of the big-name companies have now made changes as a result of our findings. But retailers across the board need to be clear about the statutory rights of shoppers - and that these rights are separate from any online returns policy that the retailer offers. We would like to see all retailers getting it right in written form on their websites, where consumers are most likely to look to find the information first.

Confusion over warranties

A recent Which? survey highlighted the extent of consumers' confusion about their rights to return faulty goods.

Given the widespread confusion among shoppers around warranties and statutory rights, misleading online returns policies such as those uncovered by our investigation may prevent shoppers from effectively exercising their returns rights, leaving them out of pocket.

Consumers will need to refer to their statutory rights under the Consumer Rights Act and Consumer Contracts Regulations on the occasions where a store's returns policy falls short.

Which? believes that retailers must do a better job at clarifying statutory rights as separate to online returns policies to promote trust and safeguard consumers from faulty goods.

Which? managing director of home products and services Alex Neill said: 'As a nation that is increasingly shopping online, it is important that trusted retailers do not mislead consumers about their rights.

'We will continue to challenge those that carry on confusing their customers.'

About our research

Between December 2017 and February 2018 Which? researchers assessed returns information on the websites of 46 popular online retailers. We compared the policies to the legal provisions made by the Consumer Rights Act and Consumer Contracts Regulations, and asked Which? consumer lawyers to further scrutinise any that our researchers believed did not accurately reflect these laws.

There is no legal requirement for retailers to inform consumers of their rights in relation to faulty goods under the Consumer Rights Act. But if they do have information on returning faulty or defective products it should be correct and clear. If it isn't, this could be misleading to shoppers.

There is a legal requirement under the Consumer Contracts Regulations to explain the online returns rights for consumers. If retailers have their own store policies with different timelines and requirements, they should also highlight that statutory rights exist in addition to this- even if their own timeline for unwanted returns online is far more generous. This is because store policies may include exclusions which do not apply under the Consumer Contracts Regulations.

In January 2018 we asked 2081 UK adults about their understanding of faulty goods rights in relation to warranties in an online survey conducted by Populus. The data has been taken from a nationally representative omnibus survey and has been weighted to the profile of the population.