When you hit the shops, whether to stock up on essentials or to find that perfect treat for a loved one, it helps to know exactly what your rights are before and after you buy. After all, by making a purchase you are entering into a contract with the seller, whereby you agree to pay the price advertised in exchange for ownership of your new goods.

There are a number of rules in place that dictate when you can claim a refund, or ask for the retailer to repair or replace goods that are faulty, damaged, or otherwise unsatisfactory - we look at them step-by-step so you know where you stand.

What if my purchase is faulty or damaged?

Your rights on this matter all depend on when you notice that the item is faulty or damaged. If you are made aware of the fault (either by noticing it yourself or by being informed by the seller) before you buy and still decide to make the purchase anyway despite its shortcomings, you have no right to return the item on the basis that it is faulty.

Similarly, you will not be entitled to a refund on a faulty product if you are deemed to have 'accepted' it. This means if you are aware the item is faulty but decide to buy it anyway, or if you have owned the item for a while before you decide to return it.

If you have owned the item for a 'reasonable' amount of time but then decide to return it, you are unlikely to be given a refund - through every shop has a different policy and you may be offered a replacement or part-refund.

It's worth noting that different shops will have different ideas of what a 'reasonable' amount of time is - some will say you have 'accepted' an item after a few days, a couple of weeks, or a month - so this is worth checking before you buy. Some manufacturers will offer extended warranties for a price but it's debatable whether these are worth it.

However, due to the Sale and Supply of Goods to Consumers Regulations 2002, you are entitled to a repair or replacement if an item develops a fault within six months after the purchase was made. This can give you valuable protection against goods that break down soon after buying them, though some retailers will refuse to offer a replacement if the damage is judged to be normal wear and tear or if they suspect the damage was caused by you.

What if I was mis-sold an item?

If you feel the seller has mis-sold an item to you, you'll fortunately have plenty of legal backing thanks to the Sales of Goods Act 1979. This states that goods must be:

  • As described. For example if you bought a toy for your children which was advertised as 'batteries included' but upon opening the box you found no batteries, you could claim a full refund. This also applies if the advertising that accompanied an item gave an incorrect description or if an item was incorrectly described by a sales assistant.

  • Fit for the purpose advertised. This means the item must perform as the advertising says it will; for example if you bought a toy for your children which advertised musical sounds but the toy remained mute, you could claim a full refund.

  • Of satisfactory quality. For example if a toy you bought fell apart after the first time your children played with it, you could claim a refund.

What are my rights if I change my mind?

If you buy an item but later decide you don't want it after all - whether that's because it's not the right fit, or the person you bought it for doesn't like it - you have no automatic right to a refund. This may come as a surprise to those of us who have had luck in the past getting a refund when returning an item with no more of a reason than 'I changed my mind about buying it'.

However, the law states that if you are returning an item that is not faulty, damaged, or in any other way defective the seller is under no obligation to give you a refund or exchange and you have no right to claim one. Some stores, though certainly not all, will offer a refund because it's good business to keep the customer happy; but this is only a goodwill gesture rather than in compliance with any legal obligation. As such it's good advice to always check a store's returns policy before you buy.

What else should I consider?

During times like Christmas when you're buying lots of goods at once, it's even more important to keep hold of your receipts as proof of purchase. Many retailers will insist you show proof of where and when you bought the item before granting a refund. Cheque stubs and bank or credit card statements can also provide evidence of your purchase if you've mislaid your receipt.

When it comes to goods sold at sale-price, legally the same rules apply in terms of when you can claim a refund or exchange. However, different stores have different policies concerning what they will offer in return for a sale item you are unhappy with - which is another reason you should always check a store's returns policy before buying.

Remember that when you make a purchase you are making an agreement with the retailer, not with the manufacturer. That means any problems must be taken up with the retailer, who cannot refuse a refund on the basis of blaming the manufacturer.

Section 75

Also remember that if you're buying something over 100 (but below 30,000) it's a good idea to use your credit card so that you benefit from some protection. Under Section 75 of the Consumer Credit Act any purchase you make over 100 with your credit card holds the credit card provider liable for the purchase as well as you.

You can also find out what your rights are when shopping online by reading our guide.