‘You break it, you buy it!’ – Don’t be bullied by unlawful practices this festive season

We have all come across those notices in some shops declaring our obligation to pay for items we break or damage while shopping in their store.  Notices stating ‘you brake it, you buy it’ or ‘you damage it, consider it sold’ are familiar to all of us. More common in smaller, privately owned stores, these signs often leave one feeling like leaving your kids and big handbag at home, the most common cause of breakages and damage in stores!

If it’s not signs telling us about our alleged obligation to buy unwanted, damaged goods, it will be signs declaring the shops’ ‘no refunds’ – policy or that they do not accept any return goods.

Consumers would be well advised to know and understand their rights under the consumer protection laws, as these types of practices are unlawful.

‘The Consumer Protection Act (CPA) takes precedence over any store policy and consumers should enforce their rights when it comes to returning or exchanging defective goods,’ says Consumer Goods and Services Ombud, advocate Neville Melville. ‘Consumers should not allow stores to bully them when it comes to returning or exchanging defective goods or those with poor workmanship,’ he adds.

Not only do consumers have a right to return any items they purchase which have material defects, but they are also entitled to choose the form of redress.  Other than the automatic six (6) month warranty that all store purchased goods carry, the CPA also provides for a ‘3R’ rule – the right to return, refund or replacement (of defective products) – within 6 months of purchasing the goods.

‘Stores will often inform consumers that the defective goods have to be returned in order to be sent away for repairs – rather than exchanging it or paying a refund. Consumers should know that they don’t have to follow what the store wants to do in such circumstances, they have the choice as to which remedy (return, refund or replace) they would prefer when it comes to defective goods,’ continues Melville. ‘The only exception is if the defect is insignificant or the consumer caused the damage,’ he adds

Another common problem occurs when the defective goods have been purchased on credit. Aggrieved consumers will sometimes show their dissatisfaction by not paying their accounts when disputes arise with the store because of these defective goods. This is the worst thing a consumer can do as it could give rise to a breach of their obligations under the credit agreement.

‘We often find that when consumers experience a problem with their goods, especially appliances and furniture, and  they take these back to the store to either be replaced or repaired and this takes a long time, they choose to voice their disgruntlement with the process by not paying their account,’ says Credit Ombud Manie van Schalkwyk.

‘As frustrated as they may be with the process, the worst thing consumers can do is to not pay their accounts. Their monthly payment history will reflect the non-payment, they can be listed at the credit bureau or even be handed over for debt collection, and interest keeps running on the outstanding balance,’ he warns.

‘Consumers need to understand that the credit department, which is responsible for your credit agreement and payments and the returns/repairs department, which sees to issues around defects and repairs, may not even be in the same city and these departments do not necessarily know of your dealings with the other. It is vital that you continue paying your account regardless of the dispute, unless the entire agreement is validly cancelled, ’ he continues.

Many consumers will buy new goods for their homes or presents for families and friends over the festive season. Consumers would be well advised to take note of the following in order to ensure that the joy of giving does not end on a sour note:

  • Keep all packaging, especially boxes and till slips until the 6 month warranty period has passed
  • Ensure that you find out about the store’s return policy before you make your purchase
  • To avoid being listed negatively, continue paying for your goods even if they have been returned for  repairs
  • When you purchase goods that need to be delivered, verify the delivery charges ( you may decide to rather arrange your own transport!) and  the delivery date in writing – if they fail to deliver as agreed,  you will be well within your rights to cancel the deal
  • Always ensure that you read and understand the terms of the credit agreement, what your payment obligations are and the total cost of the credit
  • Should you encounter any problem, try to have the details of the problem reduced to writing in an email or notes on the documents etc. Too often the consumers have no proof of the discussions with store staff

The office of the Credit Ombud deals with complaints about credit agreements, and credit bureau information disputes. The Consumer Goods & Services Ombud deals with a wide range of complaints regarding goods and services. All these services are just a phone call away and completely free to consumers.  Contact them on 0861 66 28 37 (Credit Ombud) and 0860 000 272(Consumer Goods & Services Ombud). If you are not sure which office to refer your matter to, it is in order to contact either one of the offices and they will ensure that your matter is directed to the correct organisation.