Getting Help and Helping Yourself

Common Problems

There are many common problems consumers face, some of which result from a misunderstanding of their rights, while others are because a business is unaware of or unwilling to meet its obligations.

Here are some of the common problems consumers deal with and what can be done about them. For far more information on your rights in a variety of situations, check out our consumer advice leaflets.

I bought some clothes in a shop but they’ve turned out to be the wrong size. The retailer won’t take them back. Are they breaking the law?

No, in this case, the retailer is within their rights to refuse a refund. Although many stores allow customers to bring back unwanted items (such as clothes that don’t fit) for a refund or store credit, they are under no legal obligation to do so. If, however, you bought the item at a distance (e.g. online or from a catalogue), you are within your rights to return it within 14 days and expect a refund if it doesn’t fit or you simply don’t like it.

If the product is faulty or breaks during normal use soon after purchase, the retailer is normally obliged to offer suitable redress (e.g. a repair or replacement) irrespective of whether you bought it in a shop or at a distance.

A trader came to my home and I signed up for a service/bought something. However I’ve now changed my mind and want to cancel. Am I allowed to?

If a trader comes to your home you normally have a 14-day cooling off period in which to change your mind. This applies irrespective of whether the salesman’s call was solicited or not. It may also apply to contracts made away from your home but which were not made on the trader’s business premises.

There are exceptions to the rules though, such as if the goods or service were less than £35. You can find out much more in our leaflet, ‘Your rights to cancel when buying at home’.

I bought a DVD online, but a few days after I got it I decided I didn’t want it. The retailer won’t take it back. I thought all goods sold at a distance (online, catalogues etc.) had to allow you to return things within 14days?

It’s true that with the vast majority of things that you buy at a distance, you are fully within your rights to send it back and get a full refund (for whatever reason – unless you’ve broken, defaced or used it). Most of the time you are also entitled to remove things from their packaging to inspect them (although some retailers try to suggest you can’t).

However there are exceptions, which include things such as DVDs, Blu-rays, CDs and videogames, once they have been removed from their wrappers. These exceptions were put in place to stop people essentially renting a DVD for free by watching a film and then sending it back for a full refund, and also because some people were copying the content to their computers and then returning the game, CD or film. If it is still in its wrapper, the retailer must accept it back and issue a refund, but if you’ve unwrapped it, it’s entirely at their discretion.

You should also be aware that with things such as the download of ebooks, computer games, software, music and other digital purchases, your right to cancel ends the moment you click to download it.

You can find out much more about your rights when shopping online in this leaflet.

I bought something online/from the TV/from a catalogue, but decided I didn’t want it. I sent it back within 14 days but they haven’t refunded my money yet. What can I do?

This will depend on how much time has passed. If you return goods with 14 days, you are entitled to expect your money to be refunded within 30 days. If more than 30 days have passed you should approach the retailer and ask for an explanation. If they either ignore you, keep delaying or say they won’t refund you, contact the Citizens Advice Consumer Service for further advice.

You can find out much more about your rights when shopping from home in this leaflet.

I found something with a £10 price tag, but at the counter they said it cost £30. Shouldn’t I be able to get it at the lower price?

If a product has been accidentally labelled with the wrong price, the retailer does not have to sell it to you for that amount. This may seem unfair to some, but the seller is entitled to ask you to pay the actual price (you can of course refuse and simply not buy it at all).

However, this should only happen in isolated cases. If a store is routinely mislabelling their products, either through negligence or in a deliberate effort to deceive, they may have committed an offence. If you think this may be the case, contact the Citizens Advice Consumer Service. They will pass your complaint on to us and if appropriate we can investigate.

I bought something and three months later it broke. The retailer says they won’t give me my money back or replace the item. Am I legally entitled to a refund?

This can be a tricky area of the law. The law says products must be of satisfactory quality, as described and fit for any purpose that is made known to the seller. This can mean that if you don’t use something for its intended purpose and it breaks the first time you use it (and you didn’t let the retailer know what you wanted it for before you bought it), you may not be legally entitled to a refund, repair or replacement even if its brand new.

However if something breaks during the general course of its intended use, you may be entitled to a repair or replacement many months after you bought it, although this does depend on how long you could reasonably expect to use it. For example, a kitchen sponge that breaks after a few weeks could simply be coming to the end of its natural life, but a bicycle (that’s been used reasonably) would normally be expected to last much longer. For more information on exactly when you are and aren’t entitled to your cash back, read the guide ‘Refund, repair or replacement – what am I entitled to?

I’ve read up on my rights and I’m sure I’m entitled to a refund / compensation / redress, but the trader won’t sort things out to my satisfaction. What should I do next?

The first port of call should always be to speak to the retailer directly, as most disputes can be sorted out by reasonable discussion and both sides having a good knowledge of their rights. However, if that doesn’t work, you can write a formal letter of complaint to the trader, outlining your problem (always check the best address to send complaints to).

The Citizens Advice Consumer Service or your local Citizens Advice Bureau can give you guidance on how to write a complaint letter. You can also check out our templates. These will tell you what you need to include, such as setting out a reasonable timescale for resolution and an exact description of the problem faced.

I wrote a letter of complaint, but it didn’t work. What should I do next?

Your next step will depend on what type of trader you are having a problem with. Some professions, sectors and trade bodies have ombudsman or arbitration schemes that have the power to hear disputes between consumers and businesses, and can potentially award compensation.

If you are unhappy with a trader’s response to a letter of complaint, you should first ask them whether they have a dispute policy (many larger companies do). This may involve having your complaint passed to more senior management, or being dealt with by a body within the company that deals with escalated disputes. They may also use an independent, external dispute resolution scheme who will try to reach a solution.

If you’re still unhappy, you may also be able to complain to an independent umbrella body that regulates that industry or which member companies have signed up to and have agreed to abide by its decision. For example, if you have a problem with a bank and going through the institution’s internal measures fail, you can go to the Financial Conduct Authority (which has replaced the FSA), who will look into your complaint.

You can find out more about which professions and bodies have ombudsmen and arbitration services here.

Other Options Before You Go To Court

If you are dealing with a trader who doesn’t have an official arbitrator for their area of business or who hasn’t joined a scheme, you may wish to try civil mediation. The Ministry Of Justice has set up a register of mediation providers who are accredited by the Civil Mediation Council, and employ local, professional and experienced mediators. This can offer a low-cost, simple and quick way to deal with disputes across a wide range of civil matters – many disputes can be sorted out over the telephone. However, this can only go forward if both sides agree to the mediation. You can find out more about civil mediation here.

Going To Court

If that is not suitable for you, you can launch a case against a trader in the small claims court, which deals with most disputes up to £10,000. While this may seem scary, it may be less daunting, time consuming and expensive than you think. You may not even need a lawyer.

If you do launch a small claims case, before you go to court you will be offered the option of going though the Small Claims Mediation Service, which offers a similar service to civil mediation. You can find out more about launching a small claims case here.