Consumer rights

Financial journalist Tony Levene looks at what rights consumers really have.

Have you ever run into one of those people whose first words when you give them a present are not of the “thank you, that's really kind” variety but “is the receipt inside the wrapping”?

My job is to be good with words. But I find it hard to describe how that makes me feel other than **** !!!!!! ******* !!!!!!!!.

How consumer law works

These people are not just ungracious. They also fail to understand consumer law. In some circumstances, having the receipt is no help. In others, they can do a lot without one.

Suppose the present is a red sweater. But the new owner wants a blue one and presents it and the receipt for an exchange. If the garment has no fault, the store can legally refuse to swap, or give a credit voucher, let alone a cash refund. Style, colour, size – it does not matter, there has to be something wrong.

Legally, goods must be:

So if the handle falls off a kitchen knife, the quality is unsatisfactory, if the blade fails to cut it is not “fit for purpose” and if the wrapping promises a 20cm blade but it is only 10cm then it is not “as described”.

Most stores offer a year for faults to appear

Some offer extended guarantees such as five years on a TV set, while some pens come with lifetime warranties. This is a grey and sometimes complex area – you might have two years on a computer but only two months on software bought at the same time.

What about exchanges?

Of course, most stores helpfully exchange items – the shopper returning something may a good customer. But they are not legally obliged to do so. And for practical reasons, there may be time limits – perhaps a month or two.

Because an exchange is goodwill, not a legal obligation, the store won't want to take in old stock that could stick on the shelves. Who hasn't heard about – or perhaps experienced themselves – the dreadful wedding gift which, when returned to the store, turns out to be ten years old. The present has been – and will probably continue to be – passed on from couple to couple.

Buying online

You have more legal return rights when you buy “remotely” - online, by phone, or mail order (catalogue or advert) – even if you pick up the goods in store via “click and collect” . You have seven days from delivery in which to change your mind for any reason although this does not apply to perishables such as food or flowers, items made to special order or personalised (a t-shirt with your name printed on it), or to CDs, DVDs and computer games where the security seal has been broken. So you can't watch the film and then ask for a refund. But you can ask for your money back if the DVD is faulty.

You can cancel a remote order and demand a refund if the goods fail to arrive on the promised date, or, when no actual date is given, after 30 days.

Legal rights

Your legal rights are not affected if an item is marked “sale” or “reduced”. However, if an item is sold at a cut price due to a fault – and the customer is aware of that when purchasing, then the buyer cannot complain. But the goods must still be capable of fulfilling their basic function. A watch with a faulty strap can be sold provided the purchaser is aware of it as a new strap is easy to buy. But if the watch itself is broken, it falls foul of the “fit for purpose” rule.

The original receipt is the best proof of purchase if you need to take something back but it is not a legal essential. There are other proofs. Own label goods link items to a store. And one chain of bike shops records purchaser details as proof so buyers can return items without a receipt. You may also be able to rely on a bank or credit card statement – or even a witness statement.

You generally have few rights dealing with a private seller.

And although European Union consumer laws to protect you, buying from the other side of the world via an online auction site can be an act of faith. Here, your best route is to complain to your credit card company (for items costing from £100 to £30,000).

But ultimately, dealing with a store that has a good reputation and does not wish to lose it is your greatest consumer protection.