20th January 2023

Outsourcing accountability

By shifting shopping habits away from the high street, online retail has undermined consumers’ rights to redress when things go wrong, says Matt Allwright

By Matt Allwright
Matt is a journalist and presenter of the BBC’s Watchdog and Rogue Traders
The laws haven’t changed, but our ability to make those laws work for us has been diminished because of intermediaries, buck-passing or timewasting

A recent stroll through the relatively affluent town where I was born gave me lots of opportunity to reflect. I don’t mean that I moped about as if I was in a French art film, pondering my existence. I mean that I was confronted by one empty shop window after another, with nothing to look at except my mirror image. Not a pretty picture.

The demise of our town centres isn’t news – it’s been happening for decades, as the combination punches of out-of-town and e-commerce have it all but sprawling on the canvas, gumshield out. What worries me now is how the loss of bricks-and-mortar shopfronts seems to be resulting in a chipping away at the enforceable rights
which protect us all.

You buy a jacket on an online marketplace which connects buyers and sellers. After a week, both the sleeves fall off. Face to face, you’d be able to claim under the Consumer Rights Act 2015. Buying direct online would give you a fortnight. The returns policy of the website, however, only gives you five days. Your money’s gone, but worse; you now own a jerkin.

You buy a washing machine online which you use responsibly. It fails just outside warranty, so you go back to the retailer. They redirect you to the manufacturer to decide whether the failure is due to your actions. The manufacturer decides the machine has no fault, and offers you nothing. Despite the CRA saying the retailer should be dealing with this, they wash their hands of you.

You buy a patio table online. It arrives without one leg. You contact the retailer but end up in an exchange with a chatbot, which takes you round in circles and ignores your request to speak to a human. No email, no phone line. You give up and write off the money and the product.

All of these are similar to scenarios I’ve witnessed recently. The laws haven’t changed, but our ability to make those laws work for us has been diminished because of intermediaries, buck-passing or timewasting. Of course, the shopfront was never perfect. We’ve all come across assistants who didn’t understand the product or consumer law, or didn’t have the authority to take action. But it offered a shared space with a degree of consistency. During opening hours, there was a place where you could go to meet with the same actual human beings, with name badges, faces and careers, who knew that a failure to help a customer may result in an escalating problem. That’s a compelling reason to get it right first time.

Laws are only as good as our ability to enact them. It feels right now that our power to insist on our legal rights is being steadily undercut by a number of work-around structures which favour the retailer or marketplace. They represent a real threat to consumer confidence, and that’s not something that as a country, we should be hanging in our shop window.

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