Consumer Protection Act: Know when to complain

CGS ombudWe’ve all had a bad customer experience, but how many of us actually take it further?  Under the Consumer Protection Act (CPA), you may be entitled to compensation. Consumer Goods and Services Ombud (CGSO), Adv. Neville Melville points out five common areas of consumer complaints and how to go about complaining.

1. PROBLEM: Poor quality

Consumers may find that goods they purchased are of poor quality or downright defective.

“Under the Consumer Protection Act (CPA), consumers are entitled to ask for the goods to be repaired, replaced or refunded if they are defective,” says Melville.  “The choice is the consumer’s – the retailer cannot force the consumer to have the goods repaired if they want a refund or replacement.”

He adds that the consumer can also insist on a cash refund instead of a store credit, but they must return the goods within six months of purchase.

When buying online, be sure to read the small print.  However, whatever the supplier’s return policy, if the goods are defective, the consumer is entitled to have them replaced, returned or refunded.  And the supplier must cover the expenses of this.

Make sure you keep your paperwork in order, including your receipts if possible to make the process easier.

2. PROBLEM:  The shop won’t let me return my purchase

Loved that handbag yesterday, but changed your mind today?  That may not be enough to lodge a complaint against a retailer.

“It’s a misnomer to think that a company must take back goods you purchased if there’s nothing wrong with them,” says Melville.  “The Act only requires a supplier to accept a return if there was something wrong with the goods.”

However, a ‘cooling-off period’ of five days applies to direct marketing sales or to credit transactions, such as purchasing a car, where there is a written agreement in place. Purchasing goods using your credit card counts as a cash sale.

“If there is nothing wrong with the goods, the retailer can also insist on a till slip as proof of purchase or for the original packaging in order to accept a return,” says Melville.  “Most reputable retailers have a returns policy in place, which may specify a time limit for returns, usually up to about a month.”

3. PROBLEM: Caught in marketer’s trap

Companies use marketing tactics such as sales and promotions to get customers through the door.  But if you arrive, only to be told they’ve run out of the advertised stock, you may have grounds for a complaint.  Under the CPA, retailers must ensure that they have sufficient stock to meet reasonably anticipated demand for any products that are promoted or advertised.

“If a company advertises goods at a specific price and runs out of stock, they can be held liable for ‘baiting’ consumers,” says Melville.  “If the consumer can show this, they have grounds for complaint or can demand goods of a comparable quality and value.”

4. PROBLEM: Contaminated foodstuff

If you have suffered from food poisoning after eating contaminated food, then you may be entitled to claim compensation under the CPA.

“You may be able to claim expenses such as those related to hospitalisation, other medical costs, and loss of income while you are ill,” says Melville.

However, a doctor’s note saying you’ve had an upset stomach is unlikely to get you far.

“Again keep your till slip and collect as much evidence as possible, including laboratory tested specimens and if possible, freeze any left food so it can be tested for bacteria,” says Melville.

Check the cgso.org.za website for more details if you suspect you’ve been the victim of food poisoning.

5. PROBLEM: Late delivery

You paid upfront for that lounge suite, but it still hasn’t been delivered months later?  Consumers are entitled to receive their goods within a reasonable timeframe. If you’re buying groceries online, this may mean within a day, while purchasing furniture may require a longer lead time of up to about six weeks.

“If your bank account is being debited for goods you have not yet received, don’t simply stop paying as this could have a negative impact on your credit rating, but rather lodge a complaint first,” says Melville.

Melville explains that most complaints that come through to the CGSO are the result of poor complaints-resolution by companies.  This includes consumers not being able to contact the company; being kept waiting for an unreasonable period of time for an answer; rude or unhelpful customer service staff; and being given conflicting advice on the status of the complaint.

“If handled correctly at store-level, there would be far fewer formal complaints,” he adds.  “Companies should really focus on the complaints as much as the sales.”

Melville concludes: “Great companies should view complaints not as a nuisance, but as an opportunity to put things right.”

If you need help resolving a consumer complaint, visit www.cgso.org.za; call 0860 000 272 (CPA); or email info@cgso.org.za.

About the CGSOThe Office of the Consumer Goods and Services Ombud (CGSO) is the consumer goods and services industry’s voluntary Ombud scheme, set up in line with the Consumer Protection Act.

The CGSO enforces the Consumer Goods and Services Industry Code of Conduct by receiving and dealing with consumer goods complaints by a consumer free of charge and investigating alleged contraventions.

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