/ Shopping

Undercover investigation: faulty advice on faulty goods

Cartoon of shop floor

Black Friday saw millions head to high street and online retailers to top up their Christmas gifts. Shop floor staff certainly know how to sell, but do they know your rights when it comes to returning faulty goods?

When we investigated this issue last year, we found many examples of poor and misleading advice. Many retailers told us that once a product was out of warranty it was no longer their responsibility and that we should seek redress from the manufacturer. However, under the Sale of Goods Act this is not strictly true, as your rights are with the retailer.

We were also told that inadequate staff training was the reason for some failings. So, when we repeated the investigation this year, we spoke to managers as well to see if their responses were any better.

The good, the bad and the acceptable

Just like last year, most of the shop-floor staff failed to adequately explain our rights and we were frequently told that the retailer is not responsible for faulty goods once they’re out of the warranty period.

However, there is some hope as we saw some improvement on last year. For example, Amazon’s ratings increased from one out of 12 calls being rated fair or better than fair last year, to six this year. There was a similar jump in ratings for Apple too, increasing from five out of 12 visits being rated fair or better than fair, compared to this year’s nine.

Catch me if you can

On the whole, managers appear to be a bit more clued up on the Sale of Goods Act than shop-floor staff. The only problem we had was getting hold of them. All the Apple managers we spoke to rated fair or better and 10 of the 11 Currys managers achieved the same feat – two of which were rated as excellent.

It’s unacceptable that you could be left out of pocket due to incorrect advice, so we’re continuing our discussions with retailers in an attempt to keep these ratings moving in the right direction. In the meantime you can head over to our Consumer Rights website to find out more on your rights, so that you can explain them to shop staff when you’re returning faulty goods.

Have you found you know more about your rights to return faulty products than the shop staff you speak to? Or have you always had a good experience getting your faulty goods sorted?

Comments
Member

Hi Lewis. Can you tell us if the latest undercover investigation will feature in the January magazine? I well remember the previous report, which reflects my own experience with shops denying any responsibility for goods once the warranty has expired.

Member

Yes this is in the January issue, from page 26

Member

Thanks Patrick. I look forward to reading the article.

Member

My magazine arrived this morning. Once again, Which? has used mystery shoppers to ask about consumers’ rights, and once again the results were disappointing despite the stated intentions of representatives of the companies after the previous investigation.

My suggestion is that Which? mystery shoppers pose as partners of real people (e.g. Which? members) with real faulty goods and find out what happens. If the shop is breaking the law then there is the opportunity to take legal action. That might help address a problem that has existed for years and be very good publicity for Which?

I appreciate that the role of Which? is often to report consumer problems to the organisations involved and appropriate authorities, but here is an opportunity to achieve more. I presume that mystery shoppers have to be paid, whereas real people with real problems could be available free-of-charge or for the cost of a bit of legal advice.

Member

My mag has not yet arrived. However, I have repeatedly (sorry Which?) criticised Which? for their apparent lack of action to help consumers protect their rights. It seems to me that two core functions of Which? should be
1. To test popular products groups to weed out the good from the bad
and
2. To help consumers who have genuine problems with products get suitable redress.
For the latter they need to provide information on product durability to help pursue retailers fairly, and to ensure they understand and use their legal rights.
Wavechange – I’m not sure of your proposed strategy but think it is right! I would ask Which? to get members to contact them when they have faulty goods, advise them how to ask for suitable redress and follow up to see what happens. Build a picture of how the system works and then look at how to change it – lobbying and campaigning where necessary.
Nice-to-have aspects of Which? – india )or was it?), mortgage advisors, fringe campaigns, should take a second place to mainstream consumer problems.

Member

Thanks Malcolm. I think we just have to keep asking and keep hoping. If you want to stand for a place on Which? Council and make more input you would get my vote. I don’t know enough to comment on the activities or priorities of Which? but membership was growing steadily last time I looked.

The fact that people are being denied their rights when they take back faulty goods is a huge waste of natural resources and many don’t even try, preferring to buy new products, or conditioned to believing that new is best. I would like to see Which? reviews asking us to consider whether we really need a freezer, washing machine or car when products are reviewed.

Member

I’ve worked in a few retail shops and not once have we had training in consumer rights. I learned more from watching BBC’s Watchdog, Don’t Get Done Get Dom, and using sites like Which.

Member

If a retailer breaches Regulation 5(4)(k) of the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008 by telling you that you have no rights after the expiry of a manufacturer’s warranty with the intention that you pay for repairs for which it is potentially liable, then the retailer is committing an offence under Regulation 9, punishable under Regulation 13 by a fine and/or up to two years’ imprisonment. Why isn’t more enforcement action taken to bring errant retailers to justice?

Member

Regarding Lee’s comment, it might not be realistic to expect all staff to know about consumer rights, but they should refer customers to someone who does.

I agree with NFH about the need for more enforcement action. I would like to see Which? helping some people take legal action against errant retailers.

Member

“it might not be realistic to expect all staff to know about consumer rights, but they should refer customers to someone who does.”

I agree wavechange. That is my fault for not being clear, I have been a manager or team leader in each store i’ve worked in (been very lucky). They give you no training at all.

I remember one time when I was a CTS Night Manager i had this lad customer and his earphones broke after 3 months, the normal staff refused as it was after 14 days and as i wasn’t trained and felt sorry for him I ended up giving him a refund out of my own pocket. I’m such soppy fool sometimes!

Member

(small correction to my last comment, I was never a full manager when working at Co-op food)

Member

Retail staff should be given proper training in consumer law before being allowed to interact with customers. I work in investment banking, and even as an external consultant, I have to sit through each bank’s training sessions about financial law that has little or no relevance to the tasks I carry out. Everyone working in each bank has to do this, regardless of their role. Retailers should take this similarly seriously and ensure that all their staff are properly trained in aspects of law that relate to their business.

I’m not suggesting that employees of retailers should be fined or imprisoned for their employer’s failure to train them, but that the retailers should put the same effort into training their staff about consumer law as they do for sales tactics.

Member

That’s a bit unrealistic, NFH. Bear in mind that some staff working in shops are temps rather than permanent members of staff.

What is wrong with ensuring that there is someone conversant with the law on duty at the customer service desk and asking other staff to pass on enquiries about goods that have failed outside the warranty?

Member

Likewise, many people work in banks on a temporary basis. Even external consultants like me have to go through each bank’s training regarding the laws and regulations that govern the banks. If the banks can train external and temporary staff (even for non-customer-facing roles), why can’t retailers do the same (at least for customer-facing roles)? If an employee is speaking to customers on the employer’s behalf, it is even more important that they have sufficient training to do so competently and in compliance with relevant legislation. I’m sure the retailers spend a lot of time training their staff to sell useless extended warranties, many of which are unnecessary as consumers’ statutory rights give similar protection, yet the retailers fail in their reasonable duty to train their staff on more important matters such as their customers’ legal rights.

Member

I presume that there is some qualification or training needed to work in the banking sector, whereas I doubt that this is a requirement for all jobs in retail sales.

You make a good point about extended warranties, but perhaps the answer is that they should be sold towards the end of the warranty period rather than with the sale. I believe they are normally offer insurance cover arranged through another company, and owners will have a better idea if they should take out an extended warranty after having used the product and had the opportunity to look at the terms & conditions of the cover in the comfort of their own home.

I once reported a salesman to Comet for making fallacious claims about the frequency of failure of components in TVs when selling a warranty to another customer. Clearly the salesman knew very little about electronics. The store manager was equally ignorant but on the basis of his experience agreed that I was right.

Member

Just like retail, there is no requirement for a qualification or training before working in the banking sector. Depending on the asset class, some trading roles require regulatory registration and qualification, but those jobs are the exception rather than the norm.

It is inexcusable that retailers fail to train their customer-facing staff properly in basic legal principles of their business. The banks do this, and retailers should do the same. My guess is that retailers expressly choose not to train their staff in consumer law, because they don’t want their staff to educate customers on consumer rights that might be detrimental to the retailer. Apple is one notable exception; I have noticed that Apple’s retail staff, telephone lines and web sites draw customers’ attention to consumer rights, although Apple misleadingly focuses on the two-year EU minimum limitation period imposed by Article 5(1) of Directive 1999/44/EC rather than on the England & Wales six-year limitation period imposed by Section 5 of the Limitation Act 1980.

Member

I have previously complimented Apple for being the only company I know that gives details about customers’ legal rights on their website. There is mention of the six year (or five in Scotland) period in this summary: http://www.apple.com/uk/legal/statutory-warranty/

Sorry I was wrong about the banking sector.

Member

It seems that Apple have improved even further. Thanks for the link.

Member

The simple answer is to put the “law/rights” on a piece of paper and hand it to each member of staff; then there’s no excuse for not knowing or at least not knowing where to look for the answer.

Member

It would be useful if Which? had a summary of consumers’ rights in a form suitable for easy printing – i.e. a pdf file rather than a web page.

Having worked in education I find it is helpful to back up what I say with something in writing.

Member

I should like to see this information on display at every pay point and possibly on the receipt. We are familiar with the script that says “our refund or replace policy does not affect your statutory rights” but most customers do not what their statutory rights are.

Member

Most stores employ a departmental manager who are paid more than ordinary sales staff to oversee problems with faulty goods so I fail to understand why they should not be fully trained and conversant with the law under The Sale of Goods Act.

I happen to know someone who works as a sales assistant with J Lewis who on one occasion had to deal with a very difficult customer (they do exist!). My advice to her in future was to refer such people to her departmental manager who are paid to deal with customer complaints when all rhyme and reason has been exhausted.

On another occasion this same person bought a gift from J Lewis for her husband (sorry I can’t remember exactly what it was) but it turned out to be faulty and when returning it she was told it would have to be returned to the manufacturer for repair. As it was a recent purchase I informed her that she could have requested a replacement or a refund and was not obliged to accept a repair. I was truly surprised to learn that a J Lewis sales assist had no knowledge of the Sale of Goods Act at the time.

I would agree with Lewis’s report the onus is on managers to either know consumer rights under the SoG’s Act or at least to brief their staff on such matters

Member

Oops! …………, Correction – Sales Assistant.

Member

The basics of the Sale of Goods Act are not complicated. The old OFT produced a very useful summary for retailers called “The Sale of Goods Act explained” – it can be found here on the SoGA hub – http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20140402142426/http://sogahub.tradingstandards.gov.uk
Since sales people – temporary, assistants or managers – are selling to us they should take the time to understand their responsibilities. Reading through this document is not onerous.
Maybe all shops should, by law, prominently display a large notice outlining the basics of SoGA and have a copy of this “explained” document next to it. Staff should then have no excuse for fobbing us off.

Member

The problem is that the Sales of Goods Act is not straightforward. For example, a £5 pair of shoes from Primark might be expected to fall apart after a year and the consumer would have little redress, whereas a £600 iPhone from Apple would be expected to last at least six years. The price paid and the nature of the goods are very relevant and make a significant difference to the reasonable time within which a consumer can seek redress.

Member

NFH, i’d suggest this is simply a problem with the range of products rather than the act – SoGA sets the legal framework within which a host of disparate products must be judged. My plea is that initially for mainstream expensive consumer products – e.g. domestic appliances – Which? sets standards for durability, price-related of course, so this aspect of SoGA can be better tackled at the retailer and then, if necessary, through the small claims court. I would also like Which? Legal to be more prominent in this area. It seems to me a key aspect of Which?’s role should be to help consumers when they are sold defective products or products that fail too quickly, particularly when out of guarantee.

Member

I don’t think you can even group all domestic appliances within the same durability criteria. For example, if you buy a brand new toaster for £5 and it fails after 18 months, you wouldn’t have rights against the retailer under the Sale of Goods Act. Section 14(2A) states that the price should be taken into account. The whole matter is too subjective to give precise periods for which goods should last.

Member

NFH – agreed. As I said, durability should also take account of price. However we have a right for products to last a sensible time, given their price, and all of us – retailer, consumer and court – need some reasonable bechmarks to ensure we are treated fairly. Surely something a consumer’s organisation should treat as a priority. How many of these conversations include people who have products that do not last a reasonable time and have problems getting fair treatment from the retailer? Time it was sorted.

Member

Malcolm – No doubt you will remember the Conversation where we discussed durability of washing machines with Kenneth Watt, who made the following point in relation to the Sale of Goods Act: “However there is no test of durability in the SoGA beyond what is “reasonable”. It simply isn’t there, as much as many wish it were.” This is not the first time I have been told this.

There may be a few exceptions, such as when a manufacturer claims that their LED lamps have a lifetime of 20,000 hours and they fail well before then.

Many of us have managed to get repairs or replacement of goods that have failed not long after the warranty period, but I doubt that many have even attempted to do so after four or five years. The retailer is entitled to allowed to make a deduction for the amount of use we have had before goods failed.

On hearing about the Sale of Goods Act for the first time, some people assume that it is a six year guarantee, which is obviously not the case. I fear that Trading Standards and Which? may be giving us false hopes about durability. It would be very good for Which? to provide us with some examples of how members have successfully achieved repair or replacement of goods that are say four or five years old.

I remain convinced that the way forward is to look for longer manufacturers’ warranties. If the manufacturer is responsible for the cost of repair during the warranty period they are less likely to use substandard components.

Member

wavechange, we agree generally on the points you make. I believe a 5 year warranty is too short for many sensibly-priced appliances, but it will focus manufacturers on quality of design, components and build. Like “reasonable durability”, what do we regard as a “reasonable length of guarantee” – a very similar judgement needed.
SoGA simply lays down a legal framework for the whole gamut of products. Determining individual reasonable durabilities is, it seems to me, down to specialist investigation. Consumer appliances are widely tested by consumer associations world wide and users are surveyed as to their experiences. This data could be used to establish benchmark lives without serious fault against which products could be judged. It is by its nature a bit of a circular process – using existing products to set standards. But there will be good and bad shown up I suspect at each price point, so it will be a start. There is also I think an “expectation” that can contribute. Should a £600 washing machine fail in 3 years? Should an expensive phone fail in 18 months. Somewhere lies a starting point.

Member

As NFH has pointed out, the cost of a product is a complicating factor in estimating how long a product will last. With a mechanical product like a washing machine, a large family might use it ten times as frequently as an elderly pensioner living alone. In this case the warranty should be for a number of years or a specified number of cycles – whichever comes first – analogous to a car warranty. With a fridge or freezer that is in continuous use, only the time period is needed for the warranty.

You are absolutely right that it would require specialist investigation to estimate the durability of a product and I wonder who would foot the bill.

Member

A useful site explaining traders’ obligations (and therefore customers’ rights). I could