There’s been a lot of talk about a new EU directive proposing to give everyone a 2 year guarantee on all appliances. Many articles are even saying this new right is being suppressed in the UK, and that consumers are being deceived by retailers. But we already have better protection with the Sale of Goods Act in the UK.
This ruling only proposes that consumers have a right to claim against a retailer regarding faulty goods for a period of 2 years. However, in the UK we not only already have this right through the Sale of Goods Act if a product proves to have an inherent fault or fails to last a reasonable time, but we have it for a much longer period of 5 years in Scotland, and 6 years in England, Wales & Northern Ireland.
This can be confirmed by the reaction of the Citizens Advice Bureau –
“The limitation on legally required provision of redress to a two year period is an important reduction in protection (my emphasis) for UK consumers..”.
The UK Sale of Goods Act already offers us protection against faulty goods even when the manufacturer’s guarantee has run out and says that goods must last a “reasonable time” – which can be claimed anything up to 6 years from the date of purchase.
The problem is that what is a reasonable time is subject to much interpretation and is also affected by how much a product cost, and how it has been used. Retailers and manufacturers have always stubbornly refused to entertain most claims for free repairs or compensation after the 12 month period and most consumers have historically accepted this even if begrudgingly at times.
The government’s guidelines (regarding the Sale of Goods Act) say:
“Goods are of satisfactory quality if they reach the standard that a reasonable person would regard as satisfactory, taking into account the price and any description.”
Faulty under 6 months old?
Relatively recent changes in the Sale of Goods Act put the onus on the retailer to prove that a fault on a new appliance within the first 6 months is not an inherent fault. In other words unless they can prove otherwise it will be automatically assumed that your appliance had a fault when it was sold if it fails in the first 6 months, and be entitled to compensation or even a refund. Most retailers will still try to fob you off though. Many have a voluntary exchange policy of something like 28 days during which they will swap an appliance over out of “good will” if it fails inside the period.
This is an addition to your rights and nothing to do with consumer rights at all. They will usually simply say they can’t exchange a faulty machine after this period but if it is under 6 months old and has a substantial fault you need to tell them they sold you a faulty product, which is in breach of the Sale of Goods Act. If it’s only a minor fault though it may be better to accept a repair, in fact they can insist on one if they can show it’s disproportionately expensive to replace it. This little caveat can cause a lot of problems because they might argue that’s always the case though generally if it was a serious fault they’d probably find it better to swap it.
There is no 6 year guarantee
We do not have the right to free repairs up to the 5 or 6 years in the sense that any faults up to 6 years should be repaired free of charge, but I do think faults that render an appliance uneconomical to repair within the 6 years should be potentially covered (depending on full circumstances). It’s not necessarily unreasonable if a fault develops on a washing machine or other white good within the first 5 or 6 years. Appliances can and do break down and this is accepted in the Sale of Goods Act. However, whilst it might be considered reasonable for a fault to develop on a £200 washing machine after 2 years washing for a family of 4 every day it might not be considered reasonable for a washing machine costing £600 to suffer the same – especially if only washing for a retired couple for example.
Major faults occurring within the first 5 or 6 years (which these days commonly render an appliance beyond economical repair) are a different matter though, and I believe many cases may well be covered. If an appliance breaks down and is unrepairable because of the huge cost quoted to repair it within the 5 or 6 years (especially after only 2 or 3) then I believe there is a strong case that the product has definitely not lasted a reasonable time. You have to take into account how much it cost though, and how much use it’s had. Maybe if a washing machine only cost £200 and did 5 years of heavy washing it could be considered a reasonable lifespan, but one costing £350 and only washing for one person, or a couple, should surely have lasted longer? It’s very much open to interpretation but don’t forget the Sale of Goods Act specifically qualifies the phrase that a product should last a reasonable time by saying “reasonable” is “that (which) a reasonable person would regard as satisfactory”.
A can of worms is waiting to be opened
Until enough people start to fight for these rights and retailers and manufacturers are forced to comply most consumers may have to resort to taking a seller to the small claims court to get a decision on the true extent of their rights ( Small claims court advice ). If this ever occurs on a large scale it will cause serious ripples because the status quo affords a lot of extra profit to retailers and manufacturers and effectively encourages them to continue to produce or sell poor quality rubbish. They financially benefit from doing so through extra sales when they don’t last, extra repair business, extra sales of spare parts and sales of extended warranties, which mostly cover repairs within the period that consumer legislation says many products shouldn’t be seriously breaking down within anyway – and so shouldn’t be necessary. I’m sure many people take out an extended warranty to protect them from the fear of a major fault developing within the first 5 years, which may well be covered under the Sales of Goods Act.
What would happen if consumers actually received their statutory rights?I suspect retailers were made responsible for all problems with the products they sell – even when it’s clearly not their fault – for two reasons. Firstly because the customer only has a contract with the people they bought from – and not the people who made it. They shouldn’t have to negotiate with faceless third parties. Secondly, and I’d like to think this was intended though it’s only speculation on my part, if retailers sell rubbish they (in theory) should suffer financial and time consuming consequences and would either stop selling the rubbish or put pressure on manufacturers to improve quality.
Unfortunately retailers do sell a lot of poor quality products that don’t last anywhere near as long as they should, and of course manufacturers continue to make them. Because most consumers don’t enforce their consumer rights both manufacturers and retailers generally profit nicely from sub standard quality and have little incentive to produce or sell better quality products. Consumers take most of the impact of poor quality goods themselves by paying out extra for extended warranties or by replacing products far too often, or by paying out to repair products within the first 6 years when the retailer may well be liable. Most manufacturers (of appliances at least) own so many brands they don’t even fear people being so dissatisfied with a brand that they don’t buy it again because they own many of the “alternative” brands. ( Who owns who? Who really makes your appliance? )
If consumers en mass started to reject the status quo it would put the cat amongst the pigeons and cause a lot of trouble for retailers and manufacturers. Retailers in particular wouldn’t know what had hit them. In the end they’d have to stop selling rubbish because they could no longer profit from doing so. They would only be able to survive selling products that were good enough to last the “reasonable time” expected.
I wouldn’t try to say that most appliances are so rubbish that the majority of them don’t last (although some might), but there’s little doubt that an unacceptable percentage of white goods appliances do suffer expensive breakdowns well within the first 5 or 6 years and this current situation, which is bad for the environment as well as consumers, is only viable because it’s the consumer that bears most of the financial costs. If the consumer refused to accept this burden it would pass back to the retailer as the Sale of Goods Act intended and guess what – the retailers would ensure products they sold were more reliable.
Would we be better off?This paragraph is a little tongue in cheek but believe it or not I would worry about how all this could impact the economy especially in these very tough times for retailers. If there’s one thing I’ve learnt from the “credit crunch” it’s that our economy seems to be based almost entirely on everyone buying lots of products they do not need, and replacing them way too regularly. As soon as we enter a time when people stop buying things they don’t really need we have mass unemployment and business’s struggle. So if all products were much more reliable it could have a big impact on sales and jobs. It would however be better environmentally and that’s pretty important at the moment.
The cost of products would have to go up because you can’t have very cheap and very reliable. It’s ironic that in a way, all these shoddy goods help keep our economy going. However, the same could be said for crime and vandalism, think how many jobs would be lost if there was no crime – seriously it would be millions. There’s no need for every product to be high quality and there’s plenty of room for a healthy variance in quality but products should still last a “reasonable” time and most people would think a white goods appliance lasting less than 5 or 6 years before a major fault renders it not worth repairing is not reasonable in most circumstances.
Fair Wear and Tear clause
A vital point to realise is that the Sale of Goods act in the UK giving rights to compensation for between 5 and 6 years is not a guarantee or warranty. There has always been a fair wear and tear clause and it has always said that it does not mean that no breakdowns at all should occur within this period –
“Goods cannot always be expected to work fault-free. They can break down through normal use. Buyers cannot, therefore, expect to hold the seller responsible for fair wear and tear. There needs to be a fault that was present on the day of sale even though it only became apparent later on, or a mis-description of the goods, or a lack of durability that suggests the goods were not of satisfactory quality to start with”.
Last year I spent a few weeks researching consumer rights and wrote an entire section focussing on consumer rights for washing machine owners though most of the advice should be equally relevant for most appliances and even other products.
John Lewis give a minimum 2 year guarantee on all washing machines, 3 year guarantee on all John Lewis own brand appliances and 5 year warranties on all TVs although they take the form of “free” extended warranties run by an extended warranty company after the first year.
Many manufacturers give 2 year guarantees (such as Bosch) and even 5 year parts and labour guarantees such as Miele or 10 year guarantees (ISE10 and occasionally Miele). The longer the guarantee period the better. However, any guarantee given by a retailer or a manufacturer, as the famous phrase says, “is in addition to your statutory rights”. The Sale of goods Act is a separate right which often needs fighting for and is shrouded in mystery, confusion and denial as well as (to be fair) often over inflated expectations from consumers.
Here’s what the government advises retailers regarding their obligations
I’ve highlighted some phrases in bold.
If a customer rejects faulty goods within this ‘reasonable’ period, they’re entitled to ask for their money back. All customers can claim compensation at any time if they choose. If you sell to consumers they can ask for a repair or a replacement immediately (instead of asking for a refund) at any time until six years after purchase.
If you’re dealing with a consumer, any repair or replacement you arrange must not cause them too much inconvenience. You may have to pay for other costs such as transportation. However, if a replacement is impossible and the goods cannot be repaired economically, or vice versa, then you can offer a full or partial refund.
In law you have a responsibility to your customer for up to six years from the date of purchase (in Scotland, five years from discovery of the problem). During this period, you are legally obliged to deal with any claim of breach of contract.”
If faulty goods are involved and the purchase was made a reasonably short time ago, you should offer a refund. Although they won’t usually do so, the customer may claim compensation from you – either immediately following the sale or up to six years afterwards. If they do so and it’s a reasonable claim, you can either offer to repair or replace the goods, or to provide an appropriate sum in redress”
My article here gives examples of how even years out of guarantee we may still have rights – Out of guarantee doesn’t always mean you have to pay out
Related Consumer Links –
I’ve read all the consumer advice about washing machines, I’m thinking of taking them to court (This page contains a link which allows you to pursue a small claim online, without even having to leave home. The article is about washing machines but the link can be used to pursue any small claims court action)
The above link includes many links to consumer booklets and guides as well as looking at many related FAQs regarding white goods and repairs. One of the most useful guides available is written for retailers. This is a valuable guide for retailers, but as consumers it is very useful to see what retailers are being told are their responsibilities by the Department of Trade & Industry.
I’ve just found a useful BBC news page Five consumer laws you really ought to know. There are several references to washing machines and white goods in the article and the comments below it.
UPDATE: Sept 2011
Retailers have little to lose by simply denying any responsibility (apart from goodwill and reputation of course – which you’d expect they’d be more caring about). If approached by a customer with a valid case and they pay up it costs them a certain amount of money but they should retain that customer’s loyalty and custom indefinitely. If they fob them off, most customers give up. In the rare cases where customers don’t give up and eventually win a case, the retailer only pays out roughly what they would have in the first place. It’s a no-brainer for any retailer that isn’t overly bothered about happy, life-time customers, and thinks there’s plenty more fish in the sea.
How The Sale of Goods Act leaves manufacturers with little or no consequences for making rubbish.
I’ve written another article looking at why I think the current Sale of Goods Act doesn’t really work very well. It works only for the very determined and stubborn, but not for the majority. Is this why? Is the sale of goods act too hard on retailers?