Managing the Return of Goods

There are many situations in which a consumer needs to return goods that they either no longer want or need, or are faulty some way or not as expected. There are limited options available to consumers who simply change minds about an item they have bought, and in those circumstances, it is in the seller’s discretion whether or not to exchange the item, or offer a refund.

However, where the goods are faulty or, for instance, not as described, the consumer has a range of legal rights, and the seller has legal obligations to the consumer which it must fulfil. The law in relation to the sale of goods to consumers is mainly found in the Consumer Rights Act 2015.

What is the basic right to return goods?

A consumer can legally return goods to the seller if they are faulty, not fit for purpose, or not as described. When goods are sold to consumers, the seller must comply with various obligations under the 2015 Act. They must be as described, of satisfactory quality, and fit for purpose. They must also be properly and correctly installed. In the case of services, they must be supplied with reasonable care and skill.

The meaning of ‘fit for purpose’ is interpreted fairly widely: not only must it be fit for the normal/common and reasonable purpose of that item, but also for any other purpose that the seller became aware of during the course of the sale – eg. because the buyer expressed what they wanted it for.  For instance, you may have asked for, and been given reassurance that the printer you have bought is compatible with the computer you have – but it turns out it is not, in fact, compatible. In this case, the item is not ‘fit for purpose’ as far as that buyer is concerned.

Any information provided to, and relied on by the consumer before they buy the goods or services will be ‘implied terms’ of the contract, so if the item does not comply with such information, they will have a right to return it.

The right to return goods must be exercised within a reasonable time period, and what is reasonable depends on the nature of the item. A packet of chicken breasts that has gone off before the ‘use by’ date should, for instance, be returned as soon as practicably possible to be entitled to a refund, whereas a microwave oven that breaks down after purchase could reasonably be returned in matter of months.

It is vitally important to understand that a business cannot restrict or exclude these statutory rights. If, for example, you buy an item from a shop and there are notices stating that you will only be entitled to an exchange if you return any item – you will still be entitled to your full legal rights under the 2015 Act.

When can goods not be returned?

You cannot insist on returning an item if your reasons are that you have changed your mind or it is no longer needed. In reality, most businesses selling to consumers offer a ‘no quibble’ exchange or refund policy for goods that are in their original state and packaging, for the sake of goodwill and consumer confidence. However, you do not have a strict legal right to this.

If you buy a faulty item, and it was clearly marked as faulty, or ‘seconds’, you do not have a right to return the item for that particular fault (if another fault is identified or the fault is worse than you thought or you were led to believe, you would most likely have the right to return it). As a faulty item could have more problems that what is apparent, or stated by the seller, care needs to be taken to ensure the nature and extent of the fault disclosed is clearly documented on the item of sale and, preferably, on the receipt – particularly if it is of value.

Remedies for Faulty Goods

Can I get a refund?

To obtain a full refund, the item should be returned to the seller within a reasonable period of time. If the item is faulty or otherwise not what you were expecting, you have the right to reject the goods within 30 days and the right to a full refund. It is for the business to collect the goods at its own cost.

Repair and Replacement

You have the right to a repair or replacement within 30 days. The business must bear the costs of this, such as postage, labour and materials, unless this is disproportionate to the cost of other remedies available to you.

Price Reduction

If you are not entitled to a refund or repair, you still have rights but to a lesser degree: you may have a price reduction or the right to reject and receive a refund outside the 30 days. The seller may make a deduction from the refund for any use you have had of it if no repair or replacement is not possible or acceptable with that 30-day period.

As a business, what should you be doing to comply with Consumer Rights Act?

If you are selling to consumers, you must be fully aware of your obligations, and consumers’ rights under the Act. You must particularly understand that consumer rights have been strengthened now that the Sale of Goods Act has been superseded by the 2015 Act. Make sure all your staff are fully trained in the requirements of the Act, and that they know how to deal with consumer returns in accordance with the consumer legislation.

A strict returns policy should be implemented with timelines put in place for repairs and replacements. Staff should be fully aware of this (and similar) policies.

Make sure that all descriptions given in writing and verbally are accurate, and that sales staff are sufficiently skilled to offer opinions and advice where necessary (and understand the consequences of doing so). Take particular care where information about goods is given and upon which consumers are highly likely to rely upon in making a decision to purchase the item, as this information will part of the final contract.

It is also wise to ensure that you have good and open communications with your suppliers so that you can smoothly manage returns in line with your statutory obligations. 

Article written by...
Lucy Trevelyan LLB
Lucy Trevelyan LLB

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Lucy graduated in law from the University of Greenwich, and is also an NCTJ trained journalist. A legal writer and editor with over 20 years' experience writing about the law.