Avoiding Shopping Nightmares

We have all experienced bad service while out shopping, and it is never pleasant to have your rights infringed. The good news is that matters should improve for the better, all thanks to new provisions aimed at addressing the area of recourse, as in recovering your problems. From now on, you can take your complaint to a higher level thanks to the appointment of the Consumer Goods and Services Ombudsman (CGSO).

The person named to take up the cudgel on your behalf is no less than advocate Neville Melville, and his contact details should be in every South African's personal address book – details later in this article. He is no stranger to issues of rights and fairness, having served as banking ombudsman for seven years from 2000 to 2007.

Melville is a veritable "Knight in shining armour" on the subject of the Consumer Protection Act (CPA). Not only has he assisted several organisations and companies in the correct implementation of the provisions of the CPA, he has written several books on the subject too. This is a voluntary as opposed to a statutory appointment, similar to the banking and short-term insurance sectors. This ombud's jurisdiction is limited to ruling over complaints against companies that subscribe to the Code of Conduct prescribed by the Consumer Goods and Services Industry.

However, this should not detract from the rulings he can issue. Subscribers include any company or organisation operating in the wholesale, retail and manufacturing sectors, and that includes just about everyone in business.

Issuing a press release this week, Melville, who has held office since June last, briefed the media on the areas of common consumer complaints. He also offered some advice on how to go about filing complaints with his office. These largely fall into three categories, namely:

  • Suspect quality of goods purchased
  • Returns policies, including refusal to accept returns
  • A marketing practice known as "Baiting"

Here then, is some of the advice offered by Melville in his press release statement:

On Suspect or Defective Quality

You, the consumer, buy something that turns out to be of poor quality, or may even be defective. Melville responds, "Under the CPA, consumers are entitled to ask for the goods to be repaired, replaced or refunded if they are defective." He goes on to say, "The choice is the consumer's – the retailer cannot force you to have the goods repaired if you want a refund or replacement." Know then, that you are within your rights to insist on a cash refund rather than accepting an in-store credit, as long as the purchase is not more than six months old.

Melville further advises, "When buying online, be sure to read the small print. However, whatever the supplier's return policy, if the goods are defective, you are entitled to have them replaced, returned, or refunded - and the supplier must cover the expenses."

In all situations, be sure to have your proof of purchase handy. Having the correct tax invoice, cash receipt or credit card voucher is paramount to the success of your claim.

On Returns Policy – Including Outright Refusal

The goods looked fine when you looked at them in the shop, but, hey, you decided otherwise when you got them home! Unless there is a claim against quality, or the goods are defective, a simple change of mind does not entitle you to return the goods. When you think about it, it is unfair to expect a supplier to exchange the goods you purchased when there is nothing wrong with them. Melville says, "The Act requires a supplier to accept a return only if there was something wrong with the goods."

That said, a cooling off period of five days applies in the case of direct marketing sales, as well as to credit transactions such as purchasing a car. Interestingly, goods purchased by credit card will count as a cash sale.

Most retailers will be prepared to assist when you have bought the wrong goods, subject of course to proper proof of purchase, and return in an as-new condition complete with all the packaging. Remember, they are doing you a favour! There may be exceptions when it comes to the return/exchange of perishable items, and personal clothing (underwear for example).

Beware of "Baiting"

Companies often devise campaigns to promote certain lines and get you in the door. One of the clever ways of luring you in is the promise of something free or reduced when you purchase a particular product line. This practise is termed, "Baiting", because the outlet in question is trying to catch your attention by way of a special and usually limited offer. The CPA is quite clear on this, in that retailers must ensure that they have enough stock to meet reasonable demand for goods advertised in this manner. Melville advises that, "If the consumer can show they did not, then they have grounds for complaint or can demand goods of a comparable quality and value."

In Summary

A number of complaints received to date by the Consumer Goods and Services Industry Ombudsman, link directly to poor complaints resolution by the companies themselves. Included in a long list of "uncaring responses" are fobbing consumers off, by sending them on a wild-goose chase. It seems some retailers rely on the chance of the complainant losing interest. Unreasonable waiting time for a response to a complaint is another common retort. Poor and even rude responses from so-called customer services are quite common too.

Persistence is the key. If you fail to receive a satisfactory response to a complaint in-store, you certainly have the right to elevate your concerns under the CPA to the CGSO. Here are the relevant contact details for you to use:

Keep in mind that the CGSO has been set up to deal with complaints from South African consumers. Using this channel for resolution will obviate the need to take your complaint to the over-burdened National Consumer Commission. If each one of us takes issue - as we should in the case of serious incidents affecting everyday shopping - then the country can only improve in terms of overall standards.

Stand for your rights!