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Picture: 123RF
Picture: 123RF

Isn’t online shopping wonderful? Of course it is, when everything goes right, as I believe it does most of the time.

We get to order everything from a coffee machine to a pair of shoes by means of a few taps on a screen, wherever we are, and have them delivered to us a short while later. And best of all, if we don’t like what’s in the parcel, we get to send it back within seven days of delivery, courtesy of the Electronic Communications and Transactions Act, and get a refund.

We get no such “cool-off and change your mind” period when we buy something in a physical store — only if the coffee machine or whatever breaks within six months do we get to take it back and demand our money back. (Though try telling that to the Woolies’ customer who complained on X this week that her son bought regular dairy products instead of organic ones but the store refused to swap them when she returned them the next day).

“Totally ridiculous and unacceptable!” she ranted. I think it’s fair to assume that the same woman would find it outrageous if she unwittingly bought milk that had been on an outing to another customer’s house, in the height of summer, returned the next day and then popped back in the Woolies fridge.

But back to returning online purchases. The act states that online retailers can require customers returning unwanted goods within that cooling-off period to pay for the courier. If the item is heavy and/or bulky, the cost of that could well be more than you paid for that unwanted product, so it’s not a viable option.

But like Amazon, the Takealot group chooses to absorb the cost of collecting those unwanted purchases. Which is lovely. And I’ve had many happy Takealot/Superbalist returns myself. They’ve been collected quickly — often just a day after logging a return on their app — and my credit or refund has been processed within days. All very slick and professional.

But I get a steady stream of complaints from Takealot customers whose returns have been rejected for bizarre, unjustified reasons. Topping the list is Toby Shapshak’s experience. He bought a box of Lego, returned it in time, but it was rejected because he wrote on the box. Not the Lego box; that was unopened and pristine. No, his error was writing the order details on the brown Takealot box that it was delivered in.

As instructed by Takealot itself! The company’s returns policy includes this: “Clearly mark your return reference number on the outside the parcel.” One might assume the rejection of that Lego return was a mistake on the part of an inexperienced warehouse worker, a little confused about the writing-on-box definition.

But Shapshak had several engagements with two Takealot employees, who insisted that he did not qualify for a refund because he had sullied “the item” with “a lot of pen markings”.

“Common sense dictates that ‘the original product packing’ is the actual Lego box,” Shapshak said. “When did it start including the random brown box that Takealot sends it in?

Takealot requires unwanted returned items to be “undamaged and unused, with seals all original labels and stickers still attached and not missing any accessories or parts”. The returned box of Lego met all those requirements but it was sent back to Shapshak anyway and the Takealot folk were not open to negotiation, to his immense frustration.

Robyn Arnold’s case was similar. She returned four different portable cutlery sets to a Takealot centre where a staffer examined and accepted them. But later she was told her return was rejected on the grounds that the barcoded cellophane bag in which each item had been delivered to her had been opened.

Takealot requires unwanted returned items to be 'undamaged and unused, with seals all original labels and stickers still attached and not missing any accessories or parts'

“It’s not possible to look at the quality of the item without opening the bag,” she told me. “I dispute the fact that with online purchases one is expected to satisfy oneself as the quality of a product from the photograph alone, without looking at the actual item, which one would be able to do when purchasing in a physical shop.”

I put it to Takealot that those identical barcoded cellophane bags were not “original packaging” and that the cutlery sets were returned in a resaleable condition. “It seems to me that the rules are being applied arbitrarily and unfairly in these two cases,” I said.

If writing on the outside the brown Takealot box when returning unwanted products is now a no-no, that should be clearly disclosed. That’s not the case, as it turns out. “We apologise for the inconvenience caused; both customers have since been refunded,” a Takealot spokesperson told me.

“Unfortunately, both [rejected returns] were due to human error. The employees involved have received fresh training on this specific matter, to minimise future incidents of this kind.

“Takealot does not expect shoppers to return products in the original, undamaged or altered Takealot box.”

If greater concern than the fact that Arnold and Shapshak were made to pay for those “human errors” is that they had no means of having their cases considered by more senior Takealot humans with the will and the power to put it right.

• Contact Knowler for advice with your consumer issues via email consumer@knowler.co.za or on X (Twitter) @wendyknowler


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