I Paid Good Money for a Bad Product, What Can I Do About it?
by Patrick Walsh
If you buy something or pay for a service, you expect a certain standard, but what happens when what you get doesn’t meet that standard? You know they should give your money back, but how do you make that happen?
Read on for some suggestions on how to minimise the stress involved in this process.
The Australian Consumer Law
There are a number of laws that provide consumers with various rights when buying products or services from a business. The primary one is the Australian Consumer Law, which entitles you to a repair, replacement or refund if the product doesn’t do what it should, or what you bought it to do, as long as the salesman told you it would.
You can also find in-depth explanations of the specific rights on the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission’s (“ACCC”) website. Before making a complaint, you should familiarise yourself with the consumer protection or guarantee that best fits your situation.
Other Laws that Apply With or Instead of the ACL
Depending on the product or service you are buying, you may be covered by additional laws, such as the Motor Car Traders Act which gives you additional protections for buying new or second-hand cars under ten years old.
The ACL only covers transactions that are “in trade or commerce”, so they don’t typically apply to private sales. So what happens when you buy something off Facebook Marketplace that doesn’t work? there are still the laws of contract and tort, which require people to give you what they said they would, but resolving these issues will typically mean engaging a lawyer if you can’t settle it with the seller.
If you think the ACL might not offer enough protection for you, the Consumer Affairs Victoria website offers information on some protections specific to Victoria.
Now that you’ve done your research and you know your rights, it’s very tempting to become the “Karen Meme” and start screaming “I know my rights” and demanding to see the manager. It is incredibly important to remember this:
Being entitled to something doesn’t make it happen, people make it happen.
A right is the entitlement to demand something from someone else. Unless that person has an obligation to do that thing, your right is useless unless you have the means to force them to do it. We have various mechanisms for that: courts, the ACCC, industry ombudsmen, and other organisations. If your dispute is over a new car or a home renovation, these can be very valuable mechanisms. The problem with them is that some cost money, and others can choose whether to get involved or not.
So should you give up if your dispute is over a few hundred dollar product? Not at all.
Honey and Vinegar
The easiest way to get anything is when the person wants to give it to you. This should be in your mind the whole time. We often go in prepared for a fight, and this is often about the worst thing we can do. The reality is that most businesses and employees want to do the right thing. Many large businesses have return policies that are more generous than the law requires anyway. As for the rest, the person who is telling you that you can’t get a refund probably just doesn’t fully understand the rules, especially if you are dealing with someone in a small retail business. Just be sure to fight the urge to talk down to them while you explain, and if you can, try to have the website open on your phone to show them, they’re more likely to believe that than just taking your word.
It may also be that the person serving you doesn’t have the ability to refund you. The business is required to give you a refund, but they aren’t required to let just any employee put it through. They can reserve that right to experienced staff who can properly assess whether a claim is legitimate. There are also a few things to remember about your rights:
- you aren’t entitled to a refund immediately, they can finish serving other customers first;
- they aren’t obligated to stand there and take abuse in order to give a refund, they can make you leave without one if you’re being abusive;
- if you can’t demonstrate that you bought it from them, they don’t have to give you a refund;
It’s also important to understand that just because you know the facts, and the law says you’re entitled to a refund, the business won’t always be required to give you one. A common example of this is if it looks like you have abused the product. You may know full well that it stopped working and you dropped it on the way to the car afterwards, but if it looks like it broke by being dropped, stood on, or anything it wasn’t designed for, they are entitled to refuse a refund unless you can show that the fault is unrelated to that apparent misuse.
So keep calm, and plan ahead where you can. If you know you’ll only have 10 minutes to drop in and you need to replace the product with a working one because you need it today, then call ahead with your receipt number and see if they can have a replacement waiting for you, and remember, getting angry is only going to make things harder.
The Store Employee Said They Can’t
There are occasions where you are entitled to a refund but the store staff just can’t give you one. An example of this is if you have a product that is exclusive to that store, but don’t have a receipt and can’t locate the transaction on their system for whatever reason. Most businesses run off completely computerised systems, and some can only process a refund if it can be linked to a sale that already exists in the system. The business has a reasonable argument in saying that it needs to keep accurate records and can’t process transactions outside the system.
In these situations, you are best off asking the store staff for a contact email or phone number for their head office or customer assistance team. They will typically be able to arrange something for you.
If you have experienced this before, you may want to think about signing up for membership programs. Most medium to large businesses have free membership programs that they use for marketing and to gather data on their sales demographics. These typically allow you to look up past purchases by giving them your phone number, and solves the issue of losing receipts.
They Just Said No
if you’ve been calm, reasonable, listened to them when they told you what was stopping them and tried working with them but they just keep saying no, or they won’t listen at all, you’re probably dealing with a dodgy business, or maybe just a dodgy employee. If there is someone else you can talk to or a head office, try that, but if that gets you nowhere, you will need to answer a tough question:
How far do I want to take this?
The first thing to look at is practical solutions, rather than legal ones. Leaving a scathing google review might be the push they need to fix your problem, just make sure you only write facts, avoid emotional language, and don’t accuse them of breaking the law. You are often entitled to go direct to the manufacturer to replace goods, so this might be the time to try that.
At this point you probably feel like you’ve been taken advantage of, and that’s a hard feeling to shake. What you need to consider is how much anguish you are going to suffer if you keep trying to force the refund. The ACL allows you to take your dispute to VCAT, which is far less expensive than courts and doesn’t require lawyers, but it also doesn’t allow you to claim your costs or compensation for the day you have to take off work to attend the hearing.
You may be able to go to the ACCC or an Ombudsman, but unless they see a serious issue that affects a number of people, they often won’t get involved.
This leaves you with the option of going to court, which will cost thousands just to get before a magistrate or a judge. If you win you may be able to recover some of the costs you incurred in winning, but if you lose you could have to pay the business’s costs too.
If you have bought a car, expensive whitegoods, paid for a home renovation, then it might be worth going through the stress and paying the money to get your goods refunded or replaced, but if it’s a t-shirt with shoddy stitching, or a car wash that missed a heap of spots, you may be better off cutting your losses and moving on with your life.