It’s always nice to hear those five little words after giving your loved ones their presents this Christmas… Did you keep the receipt? As thousands of us flock back to the shops with unwanted, inappropriate or faulty gifts, What Consumer gives you the lowdown on your consumer rights.

Do shops have to give me my money back?

When you buy something you enter into a legally binding contract of sale with the shop or supplier. Therefore shops are under no legal obligation to give you a refund, or take anything back simply because you have changed your mind. For this reason shops can impose their own policies on time limits for returns. These days most shops will offer you a refund and nearly all will allow you to make an exchange, but whatever their policy, they must have it clearly displayed at the point of sale. Of course this is not the case where goods are faulty, which is why you’ll always see ‘this does not affect your statutory rights’ on any policy notice.

Did you keep the receipt?

Whatever the reason for the return, you must prove that a contract of sale existed between you and the shop, which includes when you bought it and the price paid. This However, it doesn’t have to be a till receipt, and a bank or credit card statement will do just as well. If you have nothing, shops are quite within their rights to only give you back the price the item is currently selling at, which may be a good deal lower than the price you paid initially.

Cooling off periods.

These only apply to certain products and goods bought under a distance selling contract (online and mail order) or from a doorstep seller. Under the regs you can send the goods back and get a full refund no questions asked – even if you’ve taken the item out of the box or thrown the packaging away. You’ll need to get your skate on though, because you’ve only got 7 days. For more on this, see our guide to Cooling Off and Cancellations.

What are my statutory rights?

That the item is as described, that it is of satisfactory quality, safe and durable, and that it is fit for the purposes specified. If any of these are not the case, this is a breach of your statutory rights and it is the retailer’s responsibility to take action

What action must the retailer take?

Firstly, don’t be fobbed off by shops who tell you it’s the manufacturer’s responsibility, your contract of sale is with whoever sold it to you. Secondly, don’t be misled into thinking you only have the duration of the warranty period to return faulty items. You have consumer rights under the Sale of Goods Act which implies that goods should work satisfactorily for a reasonable length of time. If they do not, you cannot simply march into a shop and demand your money back. You must allow the seller the opportunity to repair or replace the goods, although it should be without any additional expense or significant inconvenience to you, and within reasonable time. If a repair or a replacement cannot be effected, you can then request a refund or a discount. For more on problems getting problems rectified, see our section on Returning Damaged or Faulty Goods.

Is the guarantee worth the paper it’s written on?

For certain products, manufacturers and retailers will often issue their own guarantees or warranties (basically the same thing!). They are not compulsory and exist to enhance consumer confidence, as well as giving the manufacturer the opportunity to collect valuable marketing information about you! Warranties are a commitment to repair or replace defective parts within a specified time frame (usually 12 months) and, thanks to recent European regs, they are now legally binding contractual obligations between you and the manufacturer, or retailer for the time frame indicated. The important point about warranties is that they should never seek to replace your rights under the Sale of Goods Act, and even after they have run out, you will still be protected by these statutory rights. Beware also small print requiring the consumer to bear the cost of any shipping, labour etc as this runs contrary to Sale of Goods. For information, see our guide to extended warranties

Rights when buying sale items

If an item is reduced in price due to a sale, your rights are the same as if it were a full priced item. If you are buying seconds, you are still entitled to a product which is undamaged and fully useable. If you knowingly buy a damaged product, the specific defect must be pointed out to you before you buy, and although you cannot then return the item on the basis of that defect, it does not mean you cannot return the item if you discover something else wrong with it – even if they have reduced the price. Don’t let the sales assistant tell you otherwise!

Items bought from online auction sites

When buying from sites such as e-bay and Amazon’s ‘Sell Your Stuff’ the important point to remember is that you are not buying from the sites themselves, but from individuals who have put their possessions or products up for sale on those sites, and this has important implications for your consumer rights. Firstly, if you are buying from a private seller (as opposed to a commercial entity), you will not benefit from a cooling off period under the distance selling regs. Neither does the statutory right to quality apply, and you will have no legal redress if the item is unsatisfactory. For more on this, see our guide to buying from online auction sites