Have you ever bought something that didn't quite work as expected, but when you've returned the item to the store you're about as popular as an expired warranty?

If you've changed your mind about an item, you might find yourself stuck with it. But there are other reasons why you could be entitled to return something. Arm yourself with a little knowledge of the ACL and you'll have a strong leg (or two) to stand on next time you find yourself at that returns counter.

Refunds and returns – your rights

The Australian Consumer Law (ACL) provides a range of consumer protections. For retailers or salespeople, being ignorant of the law is no excuse – and there is plenty of ignorance out there.

A recent CHOICE shadow shop uncovered widespread ACL violations, and the ACCC has been penalising retailers that don't play by the rules – as several Harvey Normal franchisees discovered in late 2013.

Here's an overview of your rights as a consumer.

  • Signs that say things like "no refunds", "no refunds on sale items", or "exchange or credit note only for return of sale items" are illegal.
  • You can return something if it doesn't do what you'd reasonably expect it to or it isn't of acceptable quality. However, stores don't have to take it back if you change your mind or if you find a better deal somewhere else.
  • If a product is not of acceptable quality, the retailer can't charge you for fixing it.
  • Retailers can't just fob you off to the manufacturer – they're obliged to resolve your issue.
  • If the problem is "major", you can ask for a refund or a replacement rather than a repair.
  • You should be told if a replacement is second-hand or if they've used refurbished parts to repair it.
  • Repairs must be made within a reasonable time. Mobile phones and fridges, for instance, must be given high priority, or you can demand a replacement.
  • You don't have to return a product in its original packaging.
  • If you've lost your receipt you can use the following as proof of purchase:
    • a credit card statement that itemises the goods
    • a confirmation or receipt number from a phone or internet transaction
    • a warranty card showing the date, price and place of purchase
    • the serial or production number if it's stored on the retailer's computer.

Major vs minor faults

Product problems fall into one of two categories – major or minor faults – each with its own set of rights.

There is a major failure with a product when:

  • you would not have purchased it had you known about the problem
  • it is significantly different from the description, sample or demonstration you were shown
  • it is substantially unfit for its normal purpose
  • it is unsafe.

For purchases with major failures you may reject the goods and get a refund or an identical replacement.

Minor failures include small problems with products that do not fit into the major failure categories, for example, loose threads on clothing.

For items with minor failures the seller may choose to offer you a refund, replacement or repair. This must be provided free of charge and within a reasonable time period. If it is a minor failure you cannot immediately reject the goods and demand a refund; you must give the supplier a chance to fix the problem.

Warranties, extended warranties and contracts

Regardless of lapsed warranties, ACL's consumer guarantees require a product to be of "acceptable quality" throughout its reasonable life. This length of time can be determined by the court, however it may often be longer than the warranty period, especially in the case of an expensive product such as electronics or whitegoods.

An extended warranty may charge you for protection you're already entitled to under the law. During our shadow shop of the three biggest electronics retailers in Australia, all 80 salespeople we spoke to tried to sell us an extended warranty.

Courts have the power to cancel unfair contract terms – generally defined as terms that unduly favour one party or the other. This can include unfair exclusions hidden away in terms and conditions fine print.

CHOICE-help

Need more help? The CHOICE Help service is free for CHOICE members. Our consumer advice experts will help you understand your rights and can advocate for you.