Many unhappy returns – and sometimes no returns at all. When it comes to online and catalogue retailing, there’s a whopping imbalance between the obligations the law places on traders versus customers

Many unhappy returns – and sometimes no returns at all. When it comes to online and catalogue retailing, there’s a whopping imbalance between the obligations the law places on traders versus customers.

With BRC figures showing annual growth rates for non-food direct sales of between 10 and 30 per cent, that imbalance matters even more.

If you went into a store to buy a suit you’d expect to look at the style and colour, and maybe try it on before buying. You wouldn’t expect to take it away, cut off the tags, wear it for a week and then go back to the shop demanding a refund – perhaps without even returning the suit.

Certainly, web and mail order customers need to examine goods at home, as they would in a shop, but at present the law is skewed unreasonably in their favour. 

Customers can reject the goods up to seven days after receiving them and the retailer has to give them their money back “as soon as possible” and, at the most, within 30 days. Amazingly, the law doesn’t make any link between the refund and the retailer getting the goods back. It doesn’t impose any deadline on customers or any requirement that the goods should still be in a saleable condition.

It does say “reasonable care” should be taken of the items, but doesn’t spell out what that means. There’s clearly a big difference between trying a dress on in your bedroom and wearing it to a party.  

The end result? Retailers that have done nothing wrong can be left choosing between costly legal action or writing off losses from damaged, obviously used (or even non- existent) returns.

For four years the EU has been reviewing its consumer law, including the distance selling rules, to combine it in a new consumer rights directive. We’ve been lobbying on this for just as long.

We’ve met Commission members, given written evidence and now we are bringing a group of MEPs to Britain so they can see for themselves the returns operation of one of our members.  

It could be 2012 before it is UK law but reading the draft directive suggests that we are winning. It proposes 14 days for the customer to return goods. Traders can keep the money until they receive the goods back and customers bear the cost of any decrease in the value of the goods while
they have had them.

We’ll be keeping the pressure on to make sure that the new, post-election, body of MEPs supports this and that our government transposes it properly into domestic law.

Of course, customers should have fair and balanced rights, but politicians in Brussels and London must remember that unreasonable consumer rights impose unreasonable retailer costs – and that’s bad for customers anyway.

It may have been a big hit for Elvis, but I never did like the sound of Return to Sender.