What are my consumer rights on unwanted Christmas gifts?

Giving and receiving Christmas presents can be a fraught affair, even in a normal year. Throw a global pandemic into the mix, and the likelihood of gifts being late, lost or simply unsuitable becomes even more likely.

But with non-essential shops shut in many areas of the UK, and long delays for parcels to arrive, what are your rights if you want to return item you have bought?

There are a number of pieces of legislation that aim to protect shoppers from problems with retailers, and the rights you have will depend on whether you bought items online or in person, whether the goods are faulty and whether you have the right pieces of paper to prove where you purchased the goods in the first place.

In some cases, retailers will go above and beyond the law in order to keep customers happy and loyal, too.

Here are some of the most important things you need to know about returning problem gifts this January.

You aren’t always entitled to a refund

If you’ve bought a present for someone and they don’t like it, or you can’t see them, it’s tempting to think you can just return it whenever you like. Equally, if you’ve received an unsuitable gift, you might assume you can exchange it for something else.

However, unless the item you’ve bought or received is not as described or is broken, you might find you have fewer rights than you think.

‘If you’ve bought someone something that doesn’t fit, isn’t quite what they wanted, or they’ve already got it, you have no legal right to a refund if you bought it in a physical store unless it is faulty,’ warns Katie Watts, consumer expert at MoneySavingExpert.com.

‘Some shops do offer refunds, but it’s up to them – some may only offer an exchange or credit note.’

Under the Consumer Rights Act, which is the legislation that governs items bought in shops, you are only entitled to a refund if an item is faulty, and you need to return it to the retailer within 30 days to claim this, otherwise your rights are not so strong.

‘Faulty means it isn’t of satisfactory quality, as described, fit for purpose and it doesn’t last a reasonable length of time,’ Katie explains. A ‘reasonable length of time’ will vary, depending on the item and its use, but after 30 days you may only be entitled to a repair or exchange rather than a refund.

However, while you might not always have the right to return goods, many stores have their own return policies that are more comprehensive than those enshrined in law.

This means you can often get a refund or exchange for unworn clothing, for example, if you have a receipt or other proof of purchase, while some stores will not even ask for this.

‘Many shops do take items back anyway in order to keep good relations with customers. Also, some will give a voucher in exchange but neither money nor a voucher are legal requirements,’ explains Jasmine Birtles who runs the Money Magpie blog.

Many shops have increased the amount of time you have to return an item due to coronavirus restrictions.

For example, M&S says anything bought online or in-store from 4 October 4 to December 27 2020 can be returned until January 31 this year. If you can’t return something because you are self-isolating, Katie, at MoneySavingExpert, advises that you should contact the store.

You have more rights if you buy online

The number of us buying our presents online has rocketed this year. Figures from online fulfilment partner Huboo show that 85 per cent of us used the internet for Christmas gifts.

You might feel more vulnerable buying goods that you haven’t seen, but you do have more consumer rights if you buy goods online.

This is due to the Consumer Contracts Regulations, which stipulate than unless an item is personalised or perishable, you have 14 days after delivery to ‘cancel’ the order and a further 14 days to send the items back for a full refund.

Consumer lawyer Dean Dunham says that given there are ‘no questions asked’ when you purchase goods online and then return them within 14 days of delivery, this legislation can be used to send back presents that are no longer needed, or arrive too late.

Many stores offer better returns policies than they need to, and have enhanced them in the current circumstances.

‘Get in touch with the retailer to see if it will be flexible – for example, John Lewis says it will still accept the return if this is the case,’ says Katie. ‘Remember, this is on top of your legal rights, not instead of.’

If something doesn’t turn up, it’s the retailer’s job to sort it out.

Many of the difficulties that customers are having this year are with online deliveries not turning up, or being damaged.

The Huboo survey found that 54 per cent of customers have had a bad delivery experiences, with parcels arriving late or damaged.Huboo founder Martin Bysh says that retailers were simply unable to deal with the spike in online orders caused by lockdowns and restrictions.

‘Thousands of retailers – from the big brands down to the independents and start-ups – don’t have the infrastructure to quickly fulfil the volume of orders they are receiving.’

Jasmine, at Money Magpie, says that if goods don’t turn up, the onus is on the retailer, not the courier, to find them or refund you.

‘If an item doesn’t turn up when you have bought it online, it’s the retailer’s responsibility to search for that item and either make sure it is finally delivered or send out a replacement – or simply give you your money back.

‘If there is a dispute then the company has to prove that it delivered the item to you – usually with a photograph of the item at your home,’ she says.

If you aren’t happy you can take things further If you aren’t happy with the way a company has handled your attempt to return goods, you can always take things further.

If it’s a large store chain, a written (or emailed) complaint to Customer Services is the next step. If you’ve exhausted this option, you can use the free ombudsman service at retailadr.org.uk to gain a binding decision on what should happen. You can also report a trader who has broken the law by contacting Citizens Advice Consumer Services on 0808 223 1133.

Your credit card is your secret weapon

If goods don’t turn up and you paid more than £100 (and less than £30,000), you may be able to get the money back from your credit card provider. Under section 75 of the Consumer Credit Act, your credit-card provider is ‘jointly and severally liable’ for providing the item, along with the retailer.

This is the case even if you paid just a penny of the amount on your credit card and the rest by other means.

If a retailer won’t refund you, or goes bust, this protection is really useful.
Please note it doesn’t apply when you use PayPail or other intermediaries with your credit card, though.

You aren’t covered for every transaction over £100. The value of one item, not a number of them, must be £100 or more, so if you paid £44 for one present at the same time as spending £56 on something else, the credit card company would not normally be liable.

If you paid with a debit card you may be able to ask for a changeback if there is a problem with goods, but there is no legal protection in this case.

Gift receipts have no status in law

Many shops offer ‘gift receipts’ which show where an item has been bought, but not how much it cost.

Many shops, such as Marks and Spencer, will allow you to return unwanted good with a gift receipt, but there is no requirement for them to do so.

In general, you are more likely to get a voucher or credit note from stores if you return with one of these receipts, and may need to go through the buyer if you’d rather have the cash, as it will be refunded to the original payment card.

If a store is closed, you should send an email

Want to return goods to a store by can’t because of the Covid restrictions? Consumer lawyer Dean Dunham says that customers ‘should not be prejudiced’ because of events outside their control.

‘The will be a common problem this year,’ he says. ‘Anyone that finds themselves in this situation should send an email to the retailer saying they want to return goods but have been unable to due to the shop being closed. This will stop the clock ticking in relation to the retailer’s deadline for returning goods.’

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