It is the busiest time of year for businesses and customers: the Christmas rush and then the New Year sales in many countries. But how many of us know our consumer rights, to limit the hassle and expense when the happy shopper turns out to be anything but?
Consumer law is the last thing most of us think about when shopping. But experts say it is crucial to learn our legal rights way before we need to use them, to avoid long and stressful disputes.
One country where shoppers have good legal protection is Portugal. Consumer legislation there is described as among the best in Europe. But while the rules exist, many still are not aware of them or know how to use them.
Right On met a woman who was recently forced to quickly find out about her consumer rights. She is still waiting to receive an orange juice machine bought over the internet for just under 120 euros in early November.
Lisbon resident Carla Alves said: “I suspected there was something wrong and so I did some research about the company on the internet, which made me scared. I’m worried and feeling uncomfortable about the whole situation.
“I have no experience of this and so I’m a bit worried, because I don’t know my rights. I need to know them because I want to receive the product or get my money back. But the reality is there’s not a lot of information.
“I have tried to do some research, but there’s little there about the rights I have – for me as someone without much experience. I think if this can happen to me, it could happen to anyone. A lot of people experience this and we need to be alert and know what to do in cases like this.”
Carla has turned to Portugal’s main consumer association, the experts in everything from refunds on faulty goods to getting out of bad contracts. So what for them is one of the most important ways we can protect ourselves?
Paulo Fonseca at the Portuguese Association for Consumer Protection (DECO) told Right On: “It’s knowing the trader, or trying to know them, looking for information about the trader and the products we’re going to buy.
“In Portugal consumers are becoming more aware of their rights. They know when they are having a problem and that they have rights. In these cases they contact us to resolve things. But the other problem is that it’s often the traders who don’t know about the rights that consumers have.”
New rules on shopping online are also on the way. By June 2014 all EU countries must enforce a new Consumer Rights Directive for sales made away from a trader’s premises.
For example, shops are often not legally obliged to refund people who change their mind, but it is different on the net.
The new law means web customers will have 14 days to return goods for any reason, compared to a minimum of seven days under current EU law.
Traders must then give a refund within two weeks, including the costs of delivery. And if consumers have to pay to return the goods, they must be clearly told beforehand.
Also banned will be hidden charges on websites, pre-ticked boxes for extras and credit card surcharges.
Right On’s Seamus Kearney reported: “And after-sales telephone hotlines that keep customers on hold and charge astronomical amounts of money will also be a thing of the past. Companies will not be able to charge more than the basic telephone rate.”
However, Portugal’s main consumer association is one of those concerned that harmonization means that national laws that were already tougher than the new directive had to be watered down in some areas.
Authorities agree this has been an issue for Lisbon, but compromise is part of the process.
Teresa Moreira at Portugal’s Directorate-General of Consumers, which is part of the Ministry of Economics, told Euronews: “We think it’s very important – in the context of the internal market, with the transposition of the directive on consumer rights – that there is full harmonization of several aspects.
“The aim is that consumers can profit from the internal market, shop online and take advantage of e-commerce. Because only then can we consolidate a single space without borders, where there are advantages for both consumers and businesses.”
The new directive will have a big impact on companies, especially in countries with low consumer protection.However, many traders have already had to accept the fact that satisfied customers means more business.
Manuel Lopes Rocha from the Portuguese Electronic Commerce Association (ACEPI) told Right On: “These directives involve some extra costs in terms of companies’ activities, even if there are some exceptions for small businesses and small jobs.
“It is too soon to make an assessment. We have to wait and see if the support and increased investment for the consumer compensates the extra amount that companies will pay in this balance between the rights of the consumers and businesses.”
And raising awareness about those rights has become a priority in many countries, where more happy shoppers are urgently needed to boost the economy.