Sunday, 21 December 2014

Caveat emptor - "Let the buyer beware"

(First Published in New Era Newspaper - 23 July 2014)

Last week, Consumer Court received a complaint from a customer regarding a fridge she had purchased from a furniture store but it had started giving problems within a month of purchase. She found herself in a situation where the retailer disclaimed any responsibility on a product sold as “the manufacturer is responsible for defects in materials or workmanship”. The consumer (rightly) complained that she paid the retailer and not the manufacturer, but did not receive the help she hoped.
A follow-up was made with the furniture retailer as well as the manufacturer’s representative, but no reply was received by the time of this column. This week, I would like to explain what a warranty is, and when is a consumer able to find redress.
According to the dictionary, “a warranty is a guarantee given to the purchaser by a company stating that a product is reliable and free from known defects and that the seller will, without charge, repair or replace defective parts within a given time limit and under certain conditions.” In layman’s terms, a consumer expects to have a replacement of a product that is not working as expected.
However, we first have to look at the legal aspect of a warranty. Generally speaking, a warranty forms part of a contract between the buyer and the seller. In this specific case though, it is a product guarantee, meaning that the manufacturer makes the warranty to the consumer EVEN THOUGH the manufacturer and consumer have no direct contractual relationship.
And this is when the problems starts.
The furniture store (and most appliance retailers) state on their contract with the consumer that they only sell the goods and do not accept responsibility for any Defects in Materials and Workmanship. This simply promises that the manufacturer properly constructed the product, out of proper materials and further implies that the product will work as products of that type are expected to work.
Manufacturers have become very clever in their language and often provide a time limit warranty rather than a performance warranty. In other words, this manufacturer has a 2 year warranty from the date of purchase during which the consumer must prove that the fridge was defective when manufactured. If however, the fridge stops working in the 25 month after purchase (I have owned a fridge for over ten years), the consumer cannot claim on the warranty.
The problem for our complaining consumer though is that this is not helping her to get a fridge that works. The only way she could enforce the contract is if she hires a lawyer (at a very high cost) and makes a civil case against the manufacturer. Even then, the customer might still lose, or not be able to afford the lawyer after winning.
This is why there is need for a Consumer Protection Act, or at the very least, a Consumer Ombudsman that can assist consumers in having these type of problems addressed.

On the funny side, I visited the website of the manufacturer and tried to find out about their promised “for service on appliances still under the 2 year warranty” but could find no mention of it on the written pages of the website. Having a bit of IT background I was able to access the website code (which is what search engines do) and was able to find a hidden block of text claiming that customers can “Contact our After Sales Centres for service on appliances still under the 2 year warranty” and giving the times, centres and telephone numbers to contact. Just a pity that an ordinary consumer clicking on the site will never see this information.

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