Why the ACCC's confusing new sign won't find friends in retail

The ACCC has created a new sign for retailers to help promote the Australian Consumer Law. But the sign has a wee flaw that may get you clicked off, and not just because the law is confusing to retailers and consumers alike.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) has created a new sign.

Not big news, you'd think. And you'd be right.

But the sign is noteworthy for a couple of reasons.

That's because the sign is designed to help retailers promote the Australian Consumer Law, which as the sign says, means consumers have the right to return a product and "If the problem is not major, we [the retailer] will repair the item within a reasonable time. If it is not repaired in a reasonable time you can choose a refund or replacement."

The sign spells out those rights in friendly, ready-to-print, format. Retailers, the ACCC hopes, will download it, print it, display it prominently because "The sign is designed to allow your customers to understand their rights to refunds and returns as they make their purchase. It also allows you to communicate your legal rights as a business when an item is not eligible for return."

That sounds good, as does the ACCC's aim

That law is not a favourite of retailers because is vague. When we spoke to Australian Retailers Association executive director Russell Zimmerman about the law for the March 2011 issue of My Business magazine, he complained that it imposes a tricky onus on retailers to repair products.

"Under the current ACL laws let’s assume you buy something and take it back because you are not happy," he said. "The retailer now has the chance to say it is a minor problem and have it repaired. The problem is, what is a minor problem?"

"Let me give you an example: you buy school shoes for your kids and after three weeks the stitching comes undone. The retailer says I can have that stitched in a couple of days but school rules say your kids must have black shoes." Zimmerman argues that consumers aren't getting what they want because there are no firm expectations about what should happen.

Another concern Zimmerman cited was repair turnaround times. "Imagine a watch company from Switzerland sells $5,000 watches," he said. "It’s a 12 week turnaround after a trip to Switzerland. A Japanese company might sell watches for $500 and just gives a replacement for the first 12 months or so."

The tricky language around minor or major problems means some retailers are not rushing to let consumers know about their rights, because in many cases - as Zimmerman explains - there are gray areas that can lead to disputes.

Which is just what the ACCC thinks the sign can curtail.

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