Like many people, I've used a variety of online retailers to do some of my Christmas present shopping this year. In my defence, however, I also made a foray into the middle of Edinburgh last weekend to do some 'bricks and mortar' shopping (although I spent a good chunk of the trip stuck in the middle of a 'human traffic jam' in the Christmas Market next to the Scott Monument on Princes Street).
By way of background, when you as a consumer buy goods in a shop, you're protected by the Sale of Goods Act 1979 ('SOGA'). Under SOGA, goods must be (i) as described; (ii) of satisfactory quality; and (iii) fit for purpose. 'Fit for purpose' means both their everyday purpose, and also any specific purpose that you agreed with the seller (eg if you specifically asked for a DVD player that would be compatible with your TV). Goods sold must also match any sample in the shop or any description in a catalogue. If the goods that you bought aren't as described, of satisfactory quality and fit for purpose, your rights are against the seller of the goods and not against the manufacturer and you've the right to reject the goods and get your money back, or have them replaced or repaired. Without going into too much detail, the right to reject must be exercised within a reasonable time of the purchase or you'll have to fall back on a replacement or a repair. Please take advice if you end up in dispute with a retailer as your exact rights might vary depending on the circumstances.
When a consumer buys goods online, SOGA still applies but there are additional rights, largely as a result of the Distance Selling Regulations ('the Regs'). The Regs are there to protect you when there's no face to face contact at the time of sale and you haven't had the opportunity to examine the goods that you’re buying. Which? and the OFT both have very good guidance on their websites on your rights under the Regs, (and they also tell you about the narrow categories of sales that are exempt from the Regs). In broad terms, if you're buying the types of things that people tend to buy at Christmas (books, DVDs, clothes and the like) the Regs give you a period during which you can cancel the order and get your money back (including delivery costs), even if the goods aren't defective. Also, unless the terms of sale say otherwise, the costs of returning the goods must be met by the seller. The cancellation period doesn't apply to certain items such as perishable goods, items made specifically to order and CDs, DVDs or software if you've broken the seal on the wrapping (which is logical). It's certainly worth knowing your rights in these circumstances.
On the question of buying online, I've just been on the receiving end of a very impressive level of customer service, via Amazon, from a business in Ohio called American Treasures, LLC. Amongst other things they sell movie memorabilia and I placed an order with them, via Amazon, for a toy for my niece. Without reciting the whole story, suffice to say that the level of service that I received (when the toy went missing in the UK postal system through no fault of American Treasures) was second to none. The toy did arrive slightly later than predicted by Amazon, but in the meantime Joseph and Janos at American Treasures bent over backwards to do what they could to help. The whole situation had the potential to leave me feeling just a bit disenchanted, but Joseph and Janos took the opportunity to suggest helpful alternatives, deal with the paperwork and credit card/payment side of things and generally make my life as easy as possible. I'm sure they'll be dealing with thousands of customers at this time of year but they made me feel like their only, and most valued, customer. Thanks gentlemen. Five gold stars out of five on the Amazon scale.