Service falls victim to Covid as retailers keep customers hanging on

In mid March, when the closure of schools seemed imminent, Rob Ricci readied his family for lockdown. The most crucial of his preparations was two £300 Acer Chromebooks ordered from Currys so that his daughters could continue their lessons online.

The package that arrived at his Glasgow home was gaping open with only one Chromebook inside and the delivery driver beat a retreat citing social distancing rules.

Ricci spent an hour queuing on Currys’s customer service line and was told that an investigation would take between three and five working days. That was the last he heard. “I’m getting nowhere with anyone and feel frustrated that, at a time when online retailers should be at their sharpest, I’m being failed,” he says.

Down at the other end of the country in West Sussex, Alan Kyle was also counting the hours on the phone to Currys. He had ordered a washing machine in early March. The delivery date was three days before lockdown began and it came and went without word from the company. “The silence leaves me unsure of what my next move should be,” he says.

Some retailers, it seems, are ploughing depleted resources into advertising and sales and skimping on customer service, leaving thousands of customers with faulty, incomplete or non-existent orders. Those who try to claim refunds or replacements report that they are being stalled – either by inaccessible phone lines or by the command to wait until lockdown ends before lodging a complaint.

The travel industry has been widely condemned for ignoring the legal obligation to refund cancelled holidays, but high street customers who have been forced to shop online are also finding that companies are ducking the law during the Covid chaos.

The Consumer Credit Act allows customers to claim a refund, repair or a replacement if their purchase is faulty or not as described. If they’ve shopped online, they have 14 days to return an order for any reason under the Consumer Contracts regulations. Although many firms are encouraging customers to accept credit notes or open-ended delivery times during the lockdown in order to remain solvent, consumer rights are unaffected by the crisis.

Currys’ latest Facebook post a month ago triggered more than 7,000 comments from customers awaiting missing orders and unable to make contact, and 66% of Trustpilot reviews rate its service as bad or poor.

Homebase has attracted similar ire. As the company reopens its stores, hundreds of customers have been waiting a month or more for their orders. It has suspended its customer service phone line in favour of a web form and many who have submitted complaints that way say they have had no response.

Barbara Welford from North Yorkshire ordered a set of garden furniture to use during lockdown. Her payment was debited promptly and she was promised delivery within five days. Three weeks later, there was still no sign of her £316 order or any indication that it existed. “The website is still encouraging people to buy with generous discounts,” she says. “Why is the company taking orders which they can’t fulfil?”

Holly Wilson* also invested in garden furniture when she realised weeks of quarantine lay ahead. She spent £200 on a table and two chairs from the online retailer, Very. Her order arrived, but one of the chairs was missing. She was told that complaints will only be dealt with when lockdown is over.

“I asked to return the items, but Very requires it to be collected. There is a phone number to arrange this but when I tried it was closed,” she says. “I was then sent a message telling me to return the item and order again which its own website says is not possible because of the size. By the time this crisis is over we will be out of the legal deadline for gaining refunds and, judging by the mass of complaints on social media, I am not the only person who is paying for goods they have not received, cannot cancel or gain a refund.”

Groupon, the discount platform, is offering customers whose orders arrive faulty, or not at all, vouchers instead of the refunds they are legally due. It’s also refusing to allow purchases to be returned within the required 14-day deadline, according to multiple reviewers on Trustpilot.

Lynn Crawford was refused a refund after a spa break and a hotel stay were cancelled due to the pandemic. Groupon is extending the expiry date of its vouchers but hotels are unlikely to be opening for weeks. “I’ve paid £255 which, as a self-employed person with no income at the minute, would best serve me back in my bank account,” she says. “They no longer respond to my emails, and the telephone number they give for customer services is not operational.”

The complaints website Resolver reports a surge in complaints from customers whose statutory rights are being ignored. “It’s clear that some retailers aren’t playing fair,” says spokesperson Martyn James. “It’s a huge issue, and we’re starting to see a lot of complaints about this. Consumer rights don’t evaporate because of Covid-19, though some businesses seem to be gambling they can bend the rules and get away with it.”

Currys blamed an “administration error” for Kyle’s errant washing machine which was delivered two days after the Observer intervened. However, it confirmed that delays to orders and after-sales service are possible as its offering limited telephone support and staffing levels are unpredictable because of self-isolation. Customers who need to return goods have 21 days so do so after stores reopen. Ricci, meanwhile, has now received a refund for the missing item.

Homebase admits delays caused by a surge in online orders after it closed its stores in March. “We know this has been incredibly frustrating,” it says. “Our team and suppliers are working hard doing everything we can to catch up and get back on track.” It promises customers a refund within seven days of a request.

Welford’s order never arrived and she was refunded two days after the Observer contacted the company.

Very, meanwhile, acknowledges it had failed Wilson. It has refunded half the cost of the furniture and added a £50 voucher. “To protect our customer-care team during the coronavirus outbreak, we have fewer advisors than usual taking calls,” it says. “We are also prioritising customers who are vulnerable or experiencing financial difficulties during this challenging time. This means wait times are longer than usual which we understand is frustrating.”

Groupon says it was trying to balance the needs of customers and merchants. It decided to refund Crawford after the Observer queried its policies.

“Due to postal service disruptions, some shipments are delayed and we are very sorry about this,” it says. “Our refund policies and the type of refunds that we provide to our customers – whether it’s cash or credit – can vary by category, merchant, and circumstances of the particular transaction.”

Customers who paid by credit card or a credit agreement can make a claim from their credit provider if a retailer fails to honour a purchase, provided each item was £100 or more. Debit card users can try to get their money back via the voluntary chargeback scheme operated by banks.

However, retailers that are ripping up the rule book should be held to account however dire the situation, according to consumer rights experts.

* Not their real name

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