Insightful lessons on common consumer issues

2016-04-12 09:42
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Pietermaritzburg - The Consumer Goods and Services Ombudsman has highlighted cases that provide insightful lessons on common consumer problems, such as whether it’s possible to return defective goods without a till slip and whether stores can be forced to sell goods fo

Ombudsman Neville Melville outlined these cases in his 2015/16 annual report, released last week, which revealed he had ruled 69% in favour of consumers where they received all or part of what they had claimed against a supplier or received some assistance. He finalised 2 192 complaints, of which 1 715 were in his jurisdiction.

“In many instances the suppliers in question acted in the spirit of good customer relations by providing refunds or other relief even though they were not obliged to do so under the strict application of the law,” he said.

Most complaints received were about cellphones (951), services (795), furniture (523), electrical appliances (343), computers and accessories (140), clothing (123) and building materials (110).

MTN with 613 complaints topped the list of the companies most complained about, which Melville put down to the strike and the fact that it displays the ombudsman’s number on its webpage that had many consumers thinking they were calling MTN’s complaint line.

MTN complaints were followed by JD Group (172), Vodacom (110), Shoprite (109), Lewis (106) and Massmart (63).

Melville added that complaints about other cellphone networks — Vodacom, Cell C and Altech Autopage — were only received until July 2015 after they repeatedly refused to join the scheme, arguing that they are regulated by Icasa.

The matter has been referred to the National Consumer Commission for a decision as to whether they fall under his jurisdiction.

Some of the cases highlighted by the ombudsman included:

Slips, refunds and replacements

A consumer received a cot mobile as a gift and tried to return it for a replacement when it stopped working. She didn’t have the slip or the box. The store argued that she had no proof of purchase and the mobile was available at other retailers.

Melville noted that Section 56 of the CPA, which relates to a consumer’s right to a repair, a refund or a replacement if goods are defective, makes no reference to whether a till slip is needed to return goods and each case needs to be considered on its own merits.

“The item was available at other retailers [and] the till slip or proof of purchase is critical to determine if goods were returned within the prescribed period of six months. One also needs to take note of the high levels of crime in the country,” he said.

He found that although suppliers should keep records of transactions, with no information on when or how the purchase was made, the supplier wouldn’t be able to confirm if it had been bought at its store. He found in favour of the supplier.

Pay the lowest price displayed

Melville ruled that a retailer had to give a consumer a sleeper couch that was priced in the store at R2 199 after it later claimed the price was a mistake and that it should have been R2 999,99. The consumer had already paid for the couch and had handed his invoice to the stock manager to collect it when he was alerted to the error.

Melville said Section 29 of the CPA states that a supplier can’t require a consumer to pay a price for any goods and services higher than the price displayed unless the price contained an inadvertent or obvious error.

He found that the display price was not that much lower than R2 999,99 that it gave rise to an inference that it was an obvious error and the consumer had already concluded the purchase. The supplier was bound by the price.

Pet problems

A consumer bought a parrot from a pet shop and later found it had a contagious disease and had to be put down. But the pet shop argued that the bird was healthy when it was sold and that it had displayed signage in the store which excluded it from responsibility once pets left the shop. Melville found that the incubation period of the disease was fairly lengthy and that it could be inferred that the bird had the disease when it was sold and the store could not exclude its liability under section 51 of the CPA.

Goods damaged in transit

A furniture removal company damaged a consumer’s goods by offloading her furniture recklessly. The supplier refused to accept responsibility as the consumer had not taken insurance and had signed a form thanking the company for the “best service”.

Melville found the complaint was covered by Section 51 of the CPA and that the clause in the supplier’s contract that she was not covered for accidents or damage had no legal effect. He found the supplier liable for the loss due to its failure to take proper care of her property.

Both suppliers did not follow the ombudsman’s written recommendations in these last two cases and the consumers were advised to escalate their complaints to the National Consumer Commission.

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