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Covid-19 is no excuse to deny consumer refunds

by Kate Morrison, CAS spokesperson on Fair Markets.

This article was first published in the Herald newspaper on 20 May 2020.

Did you hear the one about the woman who tried to buy something and couldn't? Well, sit back and let me tell you. It's a belter. (NB this joke takes place in a whimsical time before covid-19, where shops are open and social distancing unnecessary).

So this woman walks into a shop, selects the item she wants and takes it to the counter, where she hands it to the pleasant young salesman. She pays in cash, he puts it in the till and thanks her.
There follows an awkward silence.
"Well?" she says.
"Well what?"
"Can I have it?"
"Have what?"
"The thing I just bought."
"Oh that? No."
"I'm sorry?"
"No, you can't have it."
"But I've just paid for it."
"I know."
"So what's the problem?"
"Well unfortunately," he sighs sadly, "our policy has changed."
"Since when?"
"Since just after I put your money in the till."
"Well. Can I have my money back then?"
He frowns sympathetically, but shakes his head.
"Why not?"
"Policy," he shrugs, and beckons the next customer forward.

Now admittedly I've never been very good at telling jokes, but if you're not splitting your sides right now that may be because this story currently feels a bit too real. Because this scenario is essentially what’s happening to people all over the country at the moment as some airline companies, event planners and other suppliers refuse to refund people after a cancellation due to covid-19

The number of recent hits on the refund pages of our Advice for Scotland website have risen by 350%, suggesting that the problem is not just a few isolated incidents. Yesterday, with their consent, we published the stories of some of those affected. These cases were shocking, but not un-typical of the broader numbers we are seeing: people who have shelled out thousands of pounds and are struggling to get it back. 

In many cases these are people who have scrimped and saved or dipped into their savings for the holiday of a lifetime, or their dream wedding, only to see that dream crumble in cancellation – and then find that they have to fight to get refunded. Many have told us of the misery of spending hour after hour, day after day on the phone, bouncing between endless muzak, recorded messages and inflexible agents. Instead of cash, some companies are urging devastated customers to take a voucher: a voucher with a deadline.

Of course some say that the companies concerned didn’t cause the pandemic and they should therefore be able to keep the money. Otherwise, it is argued, they may have to lose staff or they may even go bust. While we sympathise with any business that is adversely affected by the current crisis, we’d point out that their customers didn’t cause the pandemic either, and many of them too are struggling with reduced incomes, furloughs and redundancy. Moreover, the Government has provided employers with means of retaining their workers and staving off the receiver. Individual consumers cannot be expected to subsidise business by effectively giving an un-willing donation to companies who have let them down.

It’s important not to over-complicate this. The most basic consumer principle of all is that when you pay for something, you should get that thing, in good order, and if you don’t you are entitled to your money back. When these peoples’ flight/wedding/holiday was not provided, they should be refunded. And yet it seems many are facing a brick wall.

So what’s to be done? Well, this is the kind of situation where it pays to have a strong consumer protection landscape like the one Scotland and the UK have built in recent years. The establishment of Consumer Scotland, following the Holyrood vote earlier this month, is just the latest iteration of the idea that consumers have power, and that they should be both enabled and encouraged to stand up for their rights.

But this trend of refund refusals will be a good test of whether our consumer landscape is actually fit for purpose. In other words, is it a real safety net for consumers, or just a source of warm words and good intentions?

We at CAS are doing our bit by offering advice and support to those affected, and by raising public awareness of the problem. What must happen now is that the regulators – those who have actual powers to clamp down on bad practice and force rogue companies to do the right thing – must act. The law is clear. If businesses won’t follow it and provide proper refunds, they should be compelled to do so, or penalised.

The alternative is that we all just abandon the most basic consumer right of all, and accept that you can pay for something, not get it and never see your money again.

Now that would be a joke. But, like mine, just not a very funny one.