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Ask about COVID-19 return policies as you shop to avoid disappointment later: experts

Last Updated Jan 14, 2021 at 10:44 am EST

TORONTO — Canadians who weren’t happy with some of their holiday gifts or who changed their mind after making purchases might face trouble when trying to get their money back.

Scores of retailers across the country have changed their return policies to quell the spread of COVID-19, making it trickier to get an exchange or refund, depending on the store. 

“It is absolutely a patchwork of all kinds of policies that are constantly changing … and you have no control” said Joanne McNeish, a Ryerson University professor specializing in marketing.

“This is truly customer beware territory.”

Shoppers who took a close look at fine print and store signage might have discovered that in recent months Walmart Canada temporarily stopped accepting returns of three or more of the same items and won’t process returns for any items purchased after June 1 without a receipt. 

The retailer is also not allowing returns for a slew of items including swimwear, earphones, air mattresses, sleeping bags and trading cards, and has adjusted the return period for many electronics. 

Costco Canada shoppers have posted photos on social media of store signage revealing the company has stopped accepting toilet paper, paper towels, sanitizing wipes, water, rice and Lysol products for returns in some provinces.

Canadian Tire said in an email to The Canadian Press that during lockdown its Ontario stores are not accepting returns and those in Quebec will only process returns for essential goods. 

For purchases where the 90-day returns window expires during the lockdown period, the retailer will offer a 15-day extension to return items when stores reopen.

And if you picked up the wrong bottle of wine at the LCBO, drink up. The Ontario alcohol purveyor has stopped taking returns during COVID-19 shutdowns. 

“It’s all very difficult to figure out because websites are not necessarily clear and I started looking at the back of paper receipts it’s not necessarily printed there,” said McNeish.

Stores switched up policies because COVID-19 has been a burden for retailers, she said. They have had to purchase hand sanitizer and Plexiglas shields and are grappling with the demand and high costs associated with delivery.

To avoid being disappointed later, she recommends customers get as much information as they can about returns during the purchase process. 

Snap a photo of the policy if it’s on a store wall or print a copy of the fine print because sometimes employees can misunderstand their own company’s policy and their word won’t be worth much later, she said.

If you buy something you later decide you don’t want or that you have a problem with, she urges people not to wait to return it because policies could change in that time.

“Returns policies are going to continue to tighten up, especially over the next couple of years, while stores recover from the huge expense they’ve incurred,” she said.

It’s also important for customers to know what they’re entitled to, she said.

Canada has no laws requiring retailers to accept returns, but provincial and territorial legislation gives consumers some rights. 

For example, under the Consumer Protection Act in Ontario, products ordered for delivery must be dropped off within 30 days of the promised date or shoppers can request a refund. However, if the item arrives late and you keep it, you lose your right to a refund. 

While companies are not obligated to offer returns and the Alberta government has discouraged it during the pandemic, many businesses offer them anyway as a sign of goodwill and a way to build consumer trust. 

To avoid confusion, Ken Whitehurst, the executive director of the Consumers Council of Canada, has simple advice: “always ask about exchange and return policies.” 

If customers feel wronged by a return policy they can always take the company to court, although that is less likely to succeed unless the retailer has agreed to liberal return terms., Whitehurst said in an email. 

If they’re trying to return phone or internet equipment, Whitehurst said they can turn to the Commissioner for Complaints in Telecom-Television Services. Car return troubles may be arbitrated by bodies like the Ontario Motor Vehicle Industry Council, he added. 

If there is no industry association or council to take concerns to, he said, “It never hurts to report the nature of return problems to provincial consumer protection offices.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 14, 2021.

Companies in this story: (TSX:CTC)

Tara Deschamps, The Canadian Press

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