28 July 2020

Why returns policies are changing because of Covid-19

The Covid-19 pandemic has caused businesses to reflect on their returns policies and how they operate them. For example, how do they operate them in light of the various restrictions in place due to Covid-19 now, and in the future?

Let’s look at the issues.

By law, consumers have the following statutory rights for returning goods:

  • Within 14 days under the Consumer Contracts Regulations 2013 where goods have been bought online, by telephone or by mail order – regardless of whether the goods are faulty or not. This right does not extend to goods bought in store.
  • Within 30 days under the Consumer Rights Act 2015 where the goods are faulty, for example when they are of unsatisfactory quality, unfit for purpose or not as described.

Many retailers choose to offer more generous terms, such as 28 or 30 days whether online or in store.

What this means is that a typical shop on the high street is not obliged to accept returns of non-faulty items sold in store, unless it offers customers more generous terms. This is relevant where a customer has bought clothing in the wrong size, purchased an unwanted gift or has simply changed their mind.

Technically, nothing has changed in these regulations in light of Covid-19. If a consumer wants to return an item because they no longer want it, the same rules apply. (Unless there are contractual provisions that entitle the consumer to an extension in such circumstances, which seems unlikely.)

The added complication of Covid-19

However, Covid-19 adds some complications. For example, some consumers may not be able to safely comply with a returns policy. For example, they might be in mandated self-isolation or they might be shielding, so they might not be able to return the items within the timeframe.

If the business cannot (or refuses to) send a courier to collect returns safely from the consumer, then the consumer may have an argument that being held to the business’s normal returns policy is unfair.

Best practice around refunds in Covid-19

Many retailers, including the Arcadia Group, the Frasers Group, Argos, B&Q, M&S, Next, John Lewis and many more, have extended their returns policies. These extensions allow consumers a period of time to return goods once their stores were able to safely re-open after lockdown.

This was a neat way to proactively dealing with the issue while also generating some goodwill and positive publicity in the eyes of consumers. The clarity of this approach may also have reduced the number of returns-based enquiries received. This will have freed up valuable staff time that can be used on the numerous other challenges the businesses will be facing at present.

What’s the advice for retailers around refunds in Covid-19?

There are useful lessons to be learned here in the event of a “second wave” and reintroduction of lockdown measures.

If you haven’t already done so, you would be wise to review the terms of your returns policies. You should consider extending them as necessary. This will provide clarity and fairness for consumers. It will also help you avoid claims that you have acted unfairly (and the negative publicity that will inevitably follow).

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About the Author
Kevin Mahoney, Solicitor

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