Refunds easy with online purchases, not with items bought in store

Image: Rupixen/Unsplash

If you pay for something online and when it arrives it looks nothing like the photo on the retailer’s website — or it’s far smaller than you assumed it would be because you didn’t think to check the dimensions — you can send it back for a full refund.

But if you buy something in the traditional way, you can get a refund — or a replacement — only if it breaks or becomes unfit for purpose within six months.

The rationale is that when you buy online you don’t have an opportunity to engage with the product before committing.

If you order and pay for something in a physical store — a piece of furniture, for example — based on a sample on the showroom floor, you don’t have the automatic, no-reason-required right to return it (albeit at your cost) when it is delivered weeks later, as you do with online purchases.

But if it isn’t the same as the sample, then the Consumer Protection Act does protect you. Clearly you have the right to expect that what you get is the same as what you saw on the showroom floor.

That didn’t happen in the case of a woman who ordered a brown, full-leather sofa from the Umhlanga showroom of a national furniture retailer recently.

She paid R14,000 for it on a post-lockdown sale, but was deeply disappointed with it when it was delivered in August.

“It’s a totally different colour,” she told me.

“It’s much darker and doesn’t go in my house.”

It also has a different texture, the showroom sample being lighter and more “distressed-looking”.

But when the woman complained, asking not for a refund but a replacement or credit, she was told there was nothing wrong with the sofa, the difference being put down to “dye variances” which, they claimed, she’d been warned about.

But the photo she sent me  — of a cushion from her sofa positioned on the sample sofa — revealed a difference way beyond what could be considered reasonable.

To its credit, the company decided to refund their customer for that chocolate brown sofa before I took up the case.

But I’m sharing this case because it highlights the fact that being a natural product, leather hides are not identical, and if you’re buying based on a demo model in store you may well be disappointed.

And then it becomes a subjective squabble about what is a reasonable difference and what is not.

“Some leather furniture retailers expect their customers to choose leather from a 10cm² swatch,” says Hugo Zuanni of Leather Link, the exclusive Cape agent for SA’s largest upholstery leather tannery, Hannitan.

“No wonder there are surprises on delivery day.”

Looking at close-up photos of the two leathers in question, he said it appeared they’d been processed completely differently, hence the mismatch. He has the following advice for those who are thinking of investing in a leather sofa or suite:

  • If you want a very clean, perfect, flawless type of leather, you need to buy a “corrected grain’ product. But then bear in mind that what you’re sitting on is mostly synthetic, not leather.
  • To tell the difference between genuine leather and the totally synthetic version, prod your finger into the squishiest part of the chair or sofa. The genuine product goes what Zuanni calls “pipey” — you see fine lines radiating from your prod.  The synthetic product doesn’t do that.  It folds into a definite crease.
  • Ideally you should touch and then sit on a leather sofa before buying it. Buying online, when you can’t do either, is “a bit of a gamble”, he says.

Bonded leather is barely leather, but at least these days it’s labelled as bonded leather, Zuanni says, rather than being passed off as genuine leather.

But do consumers know what bonded leather is?

“They take the shavings that come off hides, add a latex binder to them, compress it, and then put polyurethane topcoat on it,” Zuanni said.

“It’s very firm with no drape, so it can only be used on, for example, tub chairs. On items which are constantly flexing, it will crack and peel, for sure.”

I have quite a collection of photos of lounge suites which have done just that.

The owners would have been much better off spending their money on a good fabric suite.

Price isn’t always an indicator of quality, Zuanni says.

“Some retailers import cheap leather suites from China, and add a low margin, making their money on volume.

“Others import the same cheap suites but add a huge margin, banking on consumers perceiving the product to be good quality because of the price.”

What to do?

Choose a retailer which has a reputation of doing business honourably, and then ask very specific questions about the leather upholstery.

Prod it, sit on it, and then search online for posts abut other consumers’ experiences with that company and that product.

As I always say, the effort required to protect yourself from a bad deal before you buy is far, far less than that required to deal with the problem afterwards.

CONTACT WENDY:

E-mail: consumer@knowler.co.za

Twitter: @wendyknowler

Facebook: wendyknowlerconsumer

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