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Guaranteed in time for Christmas?

With the festive season upon us, and only six weeks to go until the big day ‘Guaranteed in time for Christmas is a phrase which consumers usually expect to see on promotional materials. Retailers are likely to be careful about any sweeping statements, for example in advertisements that they make about Christmas delivery this year in light of lockdown 2.0 and the closure of all but essential shops; as 2020 has seen supply chains in the retail and furniture industries experience major disruptions and delays due to lockdown restrictions both at home and abroad. However, the internet will remain a sales channel to which many of us will turn for our Christmas purchases.

With many of us working from home and unable to travel internationally, home improvement projects and furniture purchases will remain at the forefront of consumer focus as we contemplate a different festive season. We expect, therefore, that even beyond the festive period, consumers will be looking to apply their usual holiday budgets to home improvements.

When using online channels to purchase furniture, especially when consumers are not used to online shopping, it is always worth double checking specifications, perhaps asking for fabric swatches and dimensions to be certain that the item is what they wanted and that it will fit into their property. There are rights to return goods that are enhanced for distance purchases (as outlined below), but checking first will avoid disappointment later.

What are the legal consequences of late delivery and what can we do to ensure that goods ordered will arrive in time? Whether customers can rely on statements made in advertising, depends upon what is said and how detailed those statements are. Consumers are advised to check carefully to make sure the promise relates to the specific item that is being ordered and notify the retailer of any requirements that they have in relation to their order.

In the event of items not arriving in time for Christmas, if that was promised by a retailer, there are several things that a customer can do. If the item was ordered online, then there is a 14 day right to cancel which starts on the day after goods are received or alternatively there may be a the right to withdraw; but that’s not much use if the order was a gift for someone else, or if their dining table has already been given away to charity.

Under the Consumer Rights Act 2015, goods should be delivered within 30 days of the order being placed, unless agreed otherwise. This can sometimes be in the terms and conditions or specified on the order documentation. Often with large items of furniture otherwise known as ‘big ticket’ items, there can be a longer lead-time because the item is being made to fulfil an order, or parts may be shipped from abroad. Particularly at the moment, it is very important for consumers to check these lead times and ask the retailer for details of anything that might cause a delay.

At the Ombudsman, we believe there are some practical steps that consumers can take when ordering furniture, that are particularly relevant at the moment.

Top tips for festive furniture orders:

  1. Check the projected delivery date for the furniture and keep a note of the estimated timeframe and make sure it is suitable, before placing the order.
  2. If the retailer agrees to delivery for a date that is essential to the consumer, they should both keep a written record.
  3. Keep in touch with the retailer – regularly check that they are going to be able to deliver on time.
  4. Despite best endeavors, things sometimes do go wrong. Shopping with a member of the Ombudsman can ensure there is a level of protection for consumers and we advise that they check our list of members before making their purchase at www.fhio.org/members.
  5. Have a back-up – don’t dispose of any old furniture until the new items have arrived.

What if the contract cannot go ahead at all due to the Lockdown Laws? In the presently uncertain landscape, a retailer may be unable to meet its obligations due to circumstances that are outside of their control. The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) has provided some guidance on the application of the legal principle of “frustration” to contracts that are prevented from going ahead as agreed, or at all, due to lockdown laws. This sets out the CMA’s expectation that the consumer will be entitled to a full refund, without necessarily having to ask for it, including any deposit that they have paid. Retailers should not ask the consumer to take “unreasonable or unnecessary steps” to obtain the refund and will be in breach of consumer protection law if they do so. That said, there is nothing to prevent a consumer and retailer coming to an arrangement that is suitable to both of them and this can be one advantage of alternative dispute resolution at this time.

Kevin Grix, CEO and Chief Ombudsman, Furniture and Home Improvement Ombudsman said, “As we approach the festive season, customers are offered an additional layer of protection when shopping with retailers enrolled with an Ombudsman scheme; it reinforces a commitment to manage complaints formally and at a higher level than the law prescribes. Our members demonstrate responsible retailer practise by helping to raise industry standards, promoting fair trade and trusting us with their most prized asset; their customers”.

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