Major retailers’ online chat functions – including both live agents and automated chatbots – are giving their customers incorrect advice on faulty goods, new Which? research has found.
Which? put seven major retailers’ online chat functions to the test and found that all of them were giving inconsistent – and often incorrect – consumer rights advice.
The consumer champion contacted Amazon, AO, Apple, Argos, Currys, John Lewis and Very over a number of weeks to ask them for help with a range of faulty electrical products including printers, speakers and fridge-freezers.
Shoppers’ consumer rights vary according to when and how they purchased a product but if a product develops a fault before it would reasonably be expected to do so, the retailer has a responsibility to remedy the issue, even beyond the warranty period.
Despite this, Which? was repeatedly instructed to contact the manufacturer. For all of the retailers the consumer champion contacted, it also checked the numbers listed for manufacturers. Currys was the only one to list 084 numbers for some manufacturers, which charge consumers extra to make their call – and could cost up to 74p per minute to contact depending on their provider and plan. All the others provided freephone numbers, which do not have any additional charges.
Which? was able to speak to real people via online chat support in the majority of cases, except with AO and Very.
At the time of the research, AO stated on its contact us page that it was experiencing a high volume of calls but that the chatbot may be able to resolve queries more quickly. However, the options with the chatbot were limited – at no point was there an option to say how quickly the fault had developed. If it is within 30 days of purchase, consumers have a right to reject the product and receive a refund from the retailer. For a large appliance, the AO chatbot was insistent that Which? needed to contact the manufacturer.
The Very Assistant chat typically sent information from the product support hub to find the appliance’s manual – there was no option to ask about faulty products.
Which? tried to contact John Lewis using its live chat service over the course of a month but six out of nine times, the service was unavailable. When the consumer champion got through to a live chat agent, it asked about a fridge that had stopped working after eight months. John Lewis pointed Which? to the manufacturer and left the consumer champion with the impression that we had no rights with John Lewis directly, which is incorrect.
Which? was able to speak to a real person at Amazon, Apple, Argos and Currys but had mixed experiences at all four retailers.
The first time Which? contacted Amazon was for a smartphone that was just over a year old. The customer service agent correctly advised the phone could be returned for a full refund as it was within the warranty period. But for an older item – a speaker that was just over three years old – Which? was told there were no rights with Amazon as the warranty period had expired, which is not correct.
Argos’ live chat agent gave helpful advice about a faulty electric blanket that was less than six months old when they said that the in-store staff would inspect it before offering a repair, return, exchange or replacement. However, an agent told Which? that an engineer would need to visit about a cooker hood less than 30 days old as it had been used, and failed to mention the consumers’ right to reject the cooker hood in the first 30 days.
Currys also gave inconsistent advice on the same product. The first time Which? contacted Currys about a fridge that had stopped working after four months, the agent said that the consumer champion was eligible for a replacement but to contact the manufacturer for an ‘uplift number’.
The second time Which? contacted Currys about the same fridge, the agent said that if the repair was not covered by their guarantee or service agreement, the customer would have to pay for the repair, as well as a fixed non-refundable fee when the repair was booked. This is not correct – within the first six months, the retailer has a legal obligation to cover any costs associated with getting the fault checked.
Apple is both the retailer and manufacturer of its products but its advice was also inconsistent. When Apple was contacted about a faulty MacBook Pro, bought more than six months earlier, the agent gave helpful information about how to arrange a free repair. However, Apple gave incorrect information about a faulty iPhone less than 30 days old saying that there were only 14 days to return it for a refund from the date it was received.
Lisa Webb, Which? Consumer Law Expert, said:
“It’s outrageous that so many online retailers are giving inconsistent – and often incorrect – advice about their customers’ consumer rights if they receive a faulty product.
“Retailers need to up their game and make sure their automated chatbots are properly designed and online support agents are fully trained to give out the correct advice. Any retailer failing to comply with a consumer’s statutory rights would be in breach of the law.
“Which? also believes that all contact options – including online chat services and phone numbers – should be easy to find on retailers’ websites. Customers should be able to quickly speak to a real person without having to go round in frustrating circles with a chatbot.”
Notes to editors
In March and April 2023, Which? contacted Amazon, AO, Apple, Argos, Currys, John Lewis and Very using their online chat facilities – chatbots and live chat – over a number of weeks to ask them for help with a range of faulty electrical products including printers, speakers and fridge-freezers.
For the retailers where Which? managed to communicate with a human, the consumer champion contacted them at least five times (three for Apple) and asked them about products bought at different times – less than 30 days, two to six months, and more than six months ago.
Read Which?’s advice guide on consumer rights for faulty goods here.
Right of replies
An Amazon spokesperson said: “Which? did not suggest that either item was faulty on receipt and the correct advice was given in both instances. Our AtoZ Guarantee means we’ll refund or replace any item within 30 days once returned. If there’s an issue with a product after 30 days, but it is still under warranty, customers will be directed to contact the manufacturer.”
An AO spokesperson said: “We strongly dispute the findings of this narrow “investigation” into how customers can get answers to their queries.”
Apple declined to provide an on-the-record response.
A Sainsbury’s spokesperson (for Argos) said: “Our customers can be confident that our colleagues receive regular training to ensure they are complying with the law and giving our customers the correct advice based on the information provided.”
A Currys spokesperson said: “Over the last few years we have been moving a number of services to digital channels, with the aim that customers can get answers quicker than ever before. On occasion, customers might still come across teething issues with the service they get via our online chat support. It goes without saying that any opportunities for re-training or process changes that we identify off the back of this investigation will be implemented appropriately.”
A John Lewis spokesperson said: “Our Live Chat gives our customers the opportunity to get quick and easy responses for any of their questions. While we’ve not had any issues reported to us in the past month, we’re looking into this to make sure all our services continue to run to our high standards, and we’re sorry that the customer experienced issues on this occasion.”
A spokesperson at The Very Group said: “Our virtual assistant provides a range of information to help customers, including with product queries. When asked, the assistant will provide telephone details for our customer care team, who the customer can call for further assistance.”
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