Better functioning markets for consumers and traders
Most consumers today can no longer be described as vulnerable or needing constant protection while shopping for everyday needs.
Consumers have become generally conscious of their legal rights, and more importantly, are aware that no one can take them for a ride and get away with it. If a trader does not play fair during a business transaction, there is a price to be paid.
First of all, consumers may opt to seek redress through the existing legal framework specifically set up to protect them in such situations. But even if consumers decide not to file any complaints, they still have the powerful weapon of spreading the word on how they were treated by a particular trader.
It is therefore in traders’ interest to gain consumer confidence by first of all observing their legal obligations and by setting up consumer-friendly business practices that ensure customers get what is rightfully theirs.
The achievement of better functioning markets is the primary aim of the Malta Competition and Consumer Affairs Authority, which will be established shortly. The authority strives to build trust in the market place for the benefit of both consumers and traders.
By maintaining and encouraging competition and by promoting good business practices, not only will consumers be better protected against foul play, but the honest and fair trader will also see the business flourish and thus succeed over competitors engaging in unfair trading practices.
The education of consumers and traders about rights and responsibilities will be one of the main functions of the Office for Consumer Affairs under the new authority. To generate consumer confidence and minimise as much as possible the amount of complaints, businesses need to be aware of and adhere to legal obligations.
Traders should know that when they sell goods that are not in conformity with the description and specifications agreed to in the contract of sale, they are legally liable to provide consumers with a remedy.
The remedies available under the Consumer Affairs Act are repair or replacement, or, failing these, part or full refund of the money paid for the product purchased. When it comes to choosing a remedy, the inconvenience caused to the consumer may be a determining factor.
When, for instance, the trader decides to repair or replace the non-conforming product, and this causes significant inconvenience to the consumer, the latter may ask for a money refund. Traders should also know that these legal obligations are valid for two years from the delivery of the goods purchased.
These legal responsibilities cannot be waived by retailers even if they give their customers commercial guarantees that name the agent or manufacturer as the guarantor.
While traders should be aware of their legal obligations to avoid complaints by customers, consumers should also be conscious of their responsibilities to avoid making unjustified requests for compensation. Unfounded complaints may also generate bad feelings and break any trust built between consumer and trader.
For instance, consumers should bear in mind that their legal right for a remedy does not apply when they return purchased goods because they have changed their mind or realised that they made a wrong buying decision.
In these situations, retailers are free to apply their own return policies, which more often than not provide acceptable solutions to consumers as long as the terms and conditions attached to them are adhered to. Thus it is imperative that clear and unambiguous information is given to consumers about if, when, and what returns policies apply.
Other responsibilities consumers have include ensuring that a proof of purchase is given and kept for any possible future usage. Instruction booklets and manuals should also be carefully read, especially specific warnings and other information on how to operate a product safely.
Consumers should use products according to instructions provided and only for the intended purpose. On the other hand, manufacturers and distributors must ensure the products they place on the market are safe and meet the required safety standards.
Consumers should also know when and how to complain to ensure an effective redress. Within the new authority, the Office for Consumer Affairs will help by providing information and education on how and when to complain.
Knowing what consumers are entitled to is the first step towards enabling consumers to achieve compensation or remedy.
Information empowers consumers and helps them face traders if they need to make a complaint.
If after speaking to the trader the remedy is deemed inadequate to the consumer, the next step is to seek the assistance of the authorities. Another main objective of the Malta Competition and Consumer Affairs Authority is that of providing mediation between consumers and traders at minimal cost and in a short time.
Despite all efforts and precautions that may be taken by consumers and traders, a problem might still crop up when least expected. To ensure that such problems do not ruin a good relationship between a consumer and a trader, it is necessary that both parties are aware of their rights and responsibilities and observe them.
It is only in this way that a relationship based on trust is built and strengthened between consumers and traders for the benefit of both.
Ms Vella is senior information officer, Consumer and Competition Department.