May 27, 2024

Shortcuts: Buyer, Be Aware the Law Is on Your Side

But when the saleswoman rang them up, they were full price. I pointed to the sign. She told me boots were excluded. I told her it didn’t say that anywhere and asked for the manager. The manager told me that “some signs” indicated the exclusion, but that didn’t seem to be true.

We were at an impasse. I could have walked away, but I wanted the boots and they were still a good price. I bought them, but filed an online complaint form with the store.

As often happens, though, I wondered if this was just an annoying incident or actually illegal? What do consumer laws require and what don’t they?

It’s surprising what a thicket of laws and regulations are out there and how difficult it can be to determine what agency has jurisdiction over what product or service.

I thought I could sort it all out but I quickly realized that I would need to write a thesis rather than a column if I wanted to cover all the laws. So I decided to focus on some of the ones consumers might most need to know.

First, there’s the concept of the implied warranty. Yes, we all know that any major appliance or product is going to fail days after the manufacturer’s warranty runs out. But apparently, that’s not the end of the story.

Have you heard about the concept of “implied warranty of merchantability?” It is part of the Uniform Commercial Code, first published in 1952.

That means, said Anthony Giorgianni, associate finance editor for Consumer Reports Money Adviser, that when a retailer sells you something, it is giving you an unwritten assurance that the item being sold will perform how it is supposed to for a reasonable period of time. This implied warranty overrides any return policy or limitations in the manufacturer’s warranty.

All states have adopted, in some form or another, this provision of the Uniform Commercial Code or similar legislation, he said.

Now, that doesn’t mean a product is supposed to last forever.

“Most states assume four years is a reasonable amount of time,” Mr. Giorgianni said. The only way to escape the implied warranty is to post in a visible place that a product is being sold “as is” or “with all faults.” Some states, however, prohibit retailers from using such disclaimers.

There is also the “implied warranty of fitness for a particular purpose,” which means that if you bought something that you were told would serve your needs — like a washing machine that is supposed to handle 15 pounds of laundry but, as you later find out, won’t wash more than 10 pounds — you can request a refund or replacement, Mr. Giorgianni said.

And remember that while implied warranties and unwritten assurances may be on your side, it’s always best to get a retailer’s assurances in writing.

This is all fine and good, but it’s hard for me to imagine going into a retailer with, say, a digital camera that has failed to work, and arguing that it should be replaced under an implied warranty.

Or rather, it’s easy to imagine me doing it. It’s hard to imagine the salesperson willingly handing over a new camera.

Well, Mr. Giorgianni said, it can actually work.

“I walked into Wal-Mart with a broken cordless telephone after the 90-day return policy,” he said. “I asked for the manager and said it’s not reasonable that a cordless phone should break down after 90 days. I think I even had a copy of the Connecticut Uniform Commercial Code I used to carry in my wallet.

“The guy had no idea what I was talking about, but told me to get another one.”


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