Deposits, returns & refunds. Know your rights!

Can you return those too-small shoes you bought online? Get your money back on that microwave that doesn’t work? And what happens if you cancel a lay-by sale?  It’s World Consumer Rights day on March 15 – a good time to look at what your rights are, and what retailers’ obligations are when you return an item that you’ve bought.

Can you return an item bought from a retailer?

Yes, if there is a good reason. These reasons are laid out in the Consumer Protection Act, which protects you against unscrupulous suppliers and retailers, and makes sure you are treated fairly. Pheto Ntaba of the National Consumer Commission says you can return:

  • Items that are defective or not fit for purpose. For example, a hair iron that does not heat up
  • Items that are unsafe. For example, a heater sparks when you plug it in
  • Items you did not have an opportunity to examine before delivery. For example, you buy a different model washing machine to the one on display and it isn’t what you wanted or were expecting

The above applies to online sales and instore purchases.

What about if you just don’t want the item?
While most retailers allow you to return items you don’t want if you have not used them, this isn’t an automatic right. It is up to the retailer to decide if they accept these items or not.

What items cannot be returned?

  • Items where there is a health concern, for example, an opened bottle of sanitiser
  • Food and drinks, unless the items are inedible or unsafe to eat

How long do you have to return items?
In general, you must return items within 10 business days of receiving them. The main exceptions are:

  • Items bought online: Return within 7 days of delivery
  • Items under warranty: Return within 6 months of delivery for repairs or a replacement
  • Items bought from a retailer who has a more generous returns policy: For example, Woolworths allows you to return most items bought online within 90 days of purchase if the item is in a saleable condition

Will you get a full refund?
Yes, if the goods are returned:

  • For valid reasons (detailed above), and
  • Within 10 days of taking delivery, and
  • In the original, unopened packaging

The Consumer Protection Act aims to be fair and reasonable, so this last requirement is flexible. For example, if you buy a defective fridge, you will only find out it is defective when you remove the packaging and plug it in. So although the item has been ‘used’ and is not in its original packaging, you should still be entitled to a refund because it is defective. It is advisable to keep any packaging until you are sure an item works!

If the item has been altered or damaged, for example there are dents in a fridge door or the clothes are torn, the retailer can deduct an amount from the original purchase price to compensate for damages. If the goods are damaged beyond repair or resale the retailer may refuse to take them back.

You should have a till slip or invoice as proof of purchase when you return an item. Some retailers are more flexible on this, particularly if an item was received as a gift.

What about lay-bys – can you cancel and get a refund?

Yes. If you take a lay-by on an item and decide you don’t want it, you are entitled to a refund of what you have already paid, less a penalty charge of 1%. We looked at Game and Ackermans’ lay-by policies and neither say they charge that penalty.

Does a retailer have to refund your deposit?

Yes. If a retailer cannot deliver the item ordered, or a similar one, on the date and time agreed to because they don’t have stock or capacity to deliver, they must refund your deposit, with interest. For example, you buy home office furniture and pay a deposit of 50% of the purchase price, with the balance to be paid on delivery scheduled for the end of the month. If the retailer does not deliver at the end of the month because they don’t have the items in stock, they need to refund your deposit with interest, unless you come to some other arrangement.

However, if you change your mind about the purchase, it’s up to the retailer’s discretion as to whether they will refund your deposit. If the retailer has incurred costs, they may keep the deposit or part of it. For example, if your order was for an item the retailer needed to import, and the delay is due to a shipping delay, or even COVID-19 lockdown restrictions, they may deduct costs from your deposit such as an amount they paid for the item to be shopped or stored.

Did you know?
The Consumer Protection Act also applies to education, although state services are exempt. So if a private school charges an acceptance deposit or placement fee, this should be refunded in most circumstances.

What can you do if a retailer doesn’t accept your item for a return or you cannot get a refund?

  1. Contact the retailer and lodge your complaint. Remember to keep a record of any emails or conversations including who you spoke to when, and what was discussed.
  2. If you feel the retailer has ignored or not satisfactorily dealt with your complaint, contact the Consumer Goods and Services Ombud for assistance.
  3. If you are still not satisfied or want to take the matter further, contact the National Consumer Commission at 0800 014 880 or 012 428 7000. You can also download a complaint form on their website.

Know your rights before you buy

The Consumer Protection Act offers great protection for South Africans, and many retailers follow the regulations to the letter. However, problems can and do arise. Always check the terms and conditions before you buy, and ask what the returns policy is, so you don’t find yourself in dispute with the supplier if you do need to return your purchase.


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