Here’s what the law says about returning those unwanted goods

Can you return goods you do not like? This is a question consumers often ask when they hear about the section in the Consumer Protection Act that says you can return goods and get your money back.

However, it is not that simple, and the Ombud for Consumer Goods and Services (CGSO) demonstrated that recently when it determined a small business owner could not return a machine which was too complicated to operate for another, unrelated machine.

The small business owner submitted a complaint when a supplier refused to exchange a roof tiling machine for a tractor loader backer hoe.

The CGSO can accept complaints from small businesses with an annual turnover of less than R2 million.

The small business owner bought the roof tiling machine for R1 973 856.36. However, when it was installed three months later, he realised the device was too complicated to use.

He asked the supplier to exchange the machine for a tractor loader backer hoe which costs R650 000.

The supplier refused and said the best he could do was a R30 000 refund – the buy-back value of the machine.

The small business owner was not happy because he did not use the machine except when the supplier trained him how to use it.

In its response, the supplier said the small business owner bought a sophisticated piece of equipment which requires specialist training – and the customer knew about it.

The supplier even trained the owner and his staff on how to use it.

Due to the sophisticated nature of the machine, the supplier followed a step-by-step process to ensure staff were able to run production safely and according to the manufacturer’s instructions.

The small business owner signed off on the training.

The supplier also pointed out that the plant was fully operational and without any defects or faults. Therefore he would only consider refunding the buy-back value, calculated at between 10% to 30% of the purchase price, depending on the condition of the plant.

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What the Consumer Protection Act says about returns

As per Section 20 of the Consumer Protection Act (CPA), consumers have the right to return unsafe or defective goods as contemplated in section 56 and receive a refund.

Consumers can also return goods and receive a full refund if:

the supplier delivered goods the consumer bought after direct marketing and the consumer cancelled during the cooling-off period,the consumer did not have an opportunity to examine it before delivery and the consumer rejected it according to section 19,the supplier delivered a mixture of goods and the consumer refused delivery according to section 19,the consumer finds within 10 days after delivery that goods intended to satisfy a particular purpose communicated to the supplier is found to be unsuitable for that particular purpose.

However, this does not apply if:

a public regulation prohibits the return of the goods,the goods were partially or entirely disassembled, physically altered, permanently installed, affixed, attached, joined or added to, blended or combined with, or embedded within, other goods or property.

The supplier can charge a reasonable amount for necessary restoration costs to render the goods fit for re-stocking unless it was necessary for the consumer to destroy the packaging to determine if the goods conformed to the description or sample if he could not examine it first or to check if it was fit for the intended purpose.

The CGSO said consumers must remember that there is no guaranteed right to return goods unless the goods meet the criteria set out in section 20.

The small business owner bought a roof tiling machine; according to section 20 it could be returned if it was intended to satisfy a particular purpose communicated to the supplier within 10 business days after delivery and the consumer found it unsuitable for that particular purpose.

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Section 55 of the CPA

Section 55(3) provides that, in addition to the right to receive goods that are reasonably suitable for the purposes generally intended as set out in subsection 55(2)(a), a consumer has the right to expect that goods will be suitable for the specific purpose if he specifically informed the supplier of the particular purpose he wants to use it for and the supplier ordinarily sells it or acts as knowledgeable about it.

According to section 55(4), in determining whether it satisfied these requirements, all of the circumstances of the supply of goods must be considered, including but not limited to:

the manner and purposes for which it was marketed, packaged and displayed, the use of any trade description or mark, any instructions for, or warnings regarding using it,the range of things that might reasonably be anticipated to be done with or in relation to the goods and,the time when the goods were produced and supplied.

The CGSO says in this case, it is clear the small business owner told the supplier what he wanted to use the machine for.

Moreover, the supplier delivered it, installed it and trained the staff on how to operate it.

The supplier told the owner that “running a sophisticated piece of equipment such as the RSM-X model was not to be taken lightly and the training provided on the system should be taken seriously”.

The small business owner confirmed that the training provided was satisfactory and the CGSO says it could not fault the supplier if the complainant decides three months later that the machine is too complicated to use.

His statement also casts doubt on his claim that he did not use the machine and section 20(3)(a) also prohibits any return where the goods were partially or entirely disassembled, physically altered, permanently installed, affixed, attached, joined or added to, blended or combined with, or embedded within, other goods or property.

Therefore, the CGSO determined that the goods were supplied and delivered in compliance with sections 20 and 55 and were not defective and were fit for the purpose the small business owner bought it for.

As a result, the complaint had to be dismissed as the small business owner was not entitled to return the goods and receive a refund.