Black Friday: Know your rights and steer clear of the rogue operators
The Consumer Goods and Services Ombudsman warns that they are seeing an uptick in complaints about online purchases, which is why consumers should exercise extra caution over the upcoming shopping bonanza.
With Black Friday days away, retailers are enticing consumers to “shop till they drop” and cash in on month-long specials. One is even encouraging employees to sign a petition to bring their payday forward by a day so they can stock up on essentials.
One office is less enthusiastic about Black Friday, as it expects a sharp rise in complaints about deals that were too good to be true and returns policies that are either unnecessarily harsh or in blatant contravention of consumer laws.
Then there is buyer’s remorse, leaving consumers out of pocket at the worst time of the year.
Consumer Goods and Services Ombudsman Lee Soobrathi has called for sanity to prevail this Black Friday as online fraudsters and rogue retailers are at their “most active” at this time of year.
E-commerce is a big concern. The ombud’s annual report, released in August, showed that before the pandemic, complaints relating to online shopping were negligible (constituting less than 5% of complaints received), but after the lockdown restrictions were introduced in March 2020, the ombud began to see an uptick in online complaints.
From March 2020 to 28 February 2023, the ombud received 6,636 online complaints, driven by the shift towards online shopping.
Former ombud Magauta Mphahlele noted in the report that an analysis of the complaints about online shopping revealed a worrying trend, especially when it came to online platforms that also acted as marketplaces – platforms where third-party sellers advertised and offered goods and services to the marketplace’s customers.
“Typically, third-party sellers making use of an established marketplace’s virtual presence agree to a standard set of terms and conditions, including service terms relating to the facilitation of the sale of their products to customers by the marketplace provider. These include fulfilment services, which entail the supply of the goods as per description and quality.
“The consumer is often only aware that they are dealing with a third party when something goes wrong, and they are directed by the marketplace to the actual seller, who is ultimately responsible for product descriptions, returns and refunds.”
Complaints about ecommerce have risen steadily since 2020 when they comprised 26% of all the office’s complaints. This year, they comprised 34% of all complaints.
Online transactions, appliance manufacturers and retailers, and satellite and communications generated 63% of consumer complaints received by the office.
Soobrathi warns that it’s not just consumers who look forward to Black Friday: rogue retailers and online fraudsters are also at their most active at this time of year, which is why they urge caution and that consumers avoid emotional purchases and, especially, fear of missing out.
He says the fear of missing out drives many into the trap of overspending and buying things they don’t want or need.
“You have to be proactive. You have to be prudent. Sometimes people become overwhelmed and inundated with offers and just want to grab every opportunity, not realising that they should have a budget to stick to and if they overspend, they will have to deal with those repercussions in the new year.”
A prudent consumer will do their homework before the Black Friday madness to ensure that they are saving and understand the impact on their budget.
They should also view their physical and virtual purchases differently: With a physical purchase, the consumer’s rights to return goods are limited in the sense that the Consumer Protection Act (CPA) does not cover buyer’s remorse – it is a warranty of quality, so if the product fails due to quality issues, they have the right to return it for a choice of refund, replacement or repair, but that does not apply with changes of heart.
In terms of the Electronic Communications and Transactions Act, consumers have the right to return the goods without reason within seven days of receiving those goods – but they are liable for the costs of returning those goods to the supplier.
“Ultimately, a consumer is entitled to have goods that are safe, of good quality, and meant for the purpose that they are manufactured. That’s a guarantee; an implied warranty applies whether it’s to online transactions or face-to-face transactions. But it’s the methods of return that differ between an online transaction and a face-to-face transaction.”
Black Friday is also a time for bait marketing, which is another worry for the ombud.
In terms of the CPA’s section 30, a supplier must not advertise goods or services as being available at a specified price in a manner that may result in consumers being misled or deceived about the actual availability of those goods or services at that price.
“If, for example, I advertise that I have 40% off a specific type of clothing, but don’t mention limited stock or while stocks last, that can be interpreted as bait marketing, whereby I simply mark down something at a ridiculous price only to get you to my store or on my platform to look at the other products that are existing. So consumers need to be wary about that, which is where proactiveness comes in.”
Tips from the ombud
- Be proactive: If you plan to buy expensive white goods on Black Friday, track the price for several months to understand exactly what kind of bargain you are getting. This will assist in detecting if a retailer has inflated a price just before Black Friday to make a deal seem more attractive.
- Be alert to bait marketing: When it comes to Black Friday sales, many suppliers make it clear that the deal applies to limited stock. This is above board, provided it is not used as a sales tactic to get consumers to buy something different or more expensive.
- Verify: Check the profiles of unknown suppliers, including asking your online communities and other online reviews.
- Be careful: If it sounds too good to be true, it almost certainly is – especially when it’s online.
- Beware of fake sites: If you receive an unsolicited email advertising a special deal, double-check the URL on the site.
- Read the fine print: Always read the terms and conditions when buying online. If the Ts and Cs are unclear, steer clear.
- Know your rights: Online traders must display correct pricing; provide a detailed description of the goods or services to avoid consumers ordering goods that are not fit for purpose; display delivery times and communicate delays; disclose key Ts and Cs; display contact details and escalation processes; not accept payment if there is no stock or capacity to deliver; disclose any additional costs, and provide a method to track deliveries.
- Take note of “no refund policies” and enquire about the store’s warranties and guarantees over and above the CPA.
- Inspect goods before buying in-store or upon delivery when buying online.
- Keep all receipts for at least six months, or longer if you have an extended warranty. DM