When can I return an item?
A customer can generally return an item either in accordance with their statutory rights or, if the seller has one, the seller’s own policies and procedures on returns.
When your statutory rights allow you to return
Most people assume that you can return items simply because you don’t like them or don’t want them. However, retailers and shops do not actually have to accept all returned goods under the law. In certain situations, a customer has a statutory right to return an item and receive a refund. Exactly when this right is available depends on various factors, including:
whether the buyer was a consumer or a business customer
how the product was purchased (eg in-store or via a website)
whether or not there is an issue with the product. For example, if:
it is not of satisfactory quality or is defective
it is not fit for a particular purpose
it was not accurately described when being sold, or
it arrives late
In reliance on a business’ supplementary returns policy
Many shops have their own ‘goodwill’ or ‘supplementary’ returns policies, offering an exchange, refund, or credit note if you change your mind about a purchase. These ‘goodwill’ returns policies are voluntary, ie making returns under them is not a legal right. This means that businesses may impose conditions on making returns under these policies. For example, they could require that returns are made within a certain period of time or that they can only be made if items are unopened.
Any supplementary returns policies cannot in any way limit a buyer’s rights (eg their consumer rights). For example, any limitations on how returns can be made under such a policy cannot apply to returns made under statutory rules (eg when a product is faulty).
If you run a business, consider making a Returns policy to provide your customers with a supplementary returns option. This can help demonstrate your commitment to customer satisfaction and providing quality products.
How can I make sure my return is accepted?
Always check a retailer’s returns policy
You can often only return non-faulty goods if the retailer has its own returns policy (ie a goodwill returns policy). These policies are usually displayed on receipts, on signs in-store, or online. If such a returns policy covers the item you want to return, you should be sure to follow any processes imposed by the policy (eg particular postage methods).
If you return an item by mail, ensure you get a certificate of postage from Royal Mail as proof of sending. This can help you prove you sent an item if your package is misplaced or does not arrive on time, which will help you in the event of a dispute.
Stores typically impose time limits for returning non-faulty products (eg 28 days), but many extend their returns policies around Christmas time or during other key sales periods (eg Black Friday).
If your item was purchased from outside of the UK, it is important that you check the retailer’s refunds policy, as different rules may apply. Additionally, there may be information on who is responsible for paying postage and rules on returning items bought with expedited delivery.
Make sure you have everything you need to return an item
Shops and retailers require a few key things before an item can be made under their returns policy and, where the law allows, under statutory rules. These generally include:
a valid receipt - it’s important to keep all receipts as proof of purchase. If you can’t provide a valid receipt, a store is under no obligation to refund you
the correct debit or credit card - you’ll usually need the card you paid with if you want to return an item. This is important as the money is usually credited to the card that was used to pay for the item
the original packaging - retailers usually want to be able to resell a product after you’ve returned it, so it makes sense that they want the original packaging. Some stores may even impose a requirement that a returned item be unopened or unused
If you want to return an item you’ve received as a gift, you may need to talk to the person who gave you the gift to ensure you have everything you need to return the item. Alternatively, some gifts will come with an exchange certificate or gift receipt issued by the store, which will allow the person who receives the item as a gift to exchange it without needing all of the items set out above (eg original receipts and credit cards).
Returns and refunds for items bought online
If you want to return an item that was ordered online, over the phone, or by mail order, you generally have extended rights under The Consumer Contracts (Information, Cancellation and Additional Charges) Regulations 2013. Under these Regulations, you can cancel an order as soon as it is placed and you have 14 days from the day the goods arrive to change your mind. This is often referred to as a ‘cancellation period’ or a ‘cooling off period’.
You will be entitled to a ‘no-questions-asked’ full refund, even if the item is not faulty. However, this 14-day period begins when the purchaser receives an item. So if the person returning the item didn’t buy it, they will need to find out when the gift-giver received the item.
If the item is not faulty and you don’t want it, the online retailer is under no obligation to pay the return postage costs. You may have to pay for the postage.
If the item was bought from an auction site, such as eBay, the right to return will depend on the individual seller and their returns policy.
Returns and refunds for digital products
Some goods may be purchased as ‘digital content’. For example, a software product or film download. If you buy digital content and want to download it within the 14-day cancellation period, you’ll first have to agree to waive your cancellation rights. This is to stop you from changing your mind after you have downloaded the content (ie once you’ve already used it).
For more information read Consumer rights when purchasing digital content.
Purchases made online versus by distance selling
Where goods are purchased over the phone, via text, from TV, online, or by mail, and there is no actual (or potential for) face-to-face contact, this is known as ‘distance selling’. There is some crossover here with online sales, but if an online store also has a physical store then it would not meet the distance selling criteria.
Both distance sales and online sales have the same 14-day cooling-off period rule for returns. The distinction between online and distance sales is generally only important when handling disputes regarding other terms and conditions of sale.