Retailers and returns services potentially breaking law on returns for disabled consumers, Which? finds

Some retailers and returns services are potentially breaking the law over returns for disabled consumers, a Which? investigation has found.

Which?’s joint survey with the Research Institute for Disabled Consumers (RIDC) found one in two (49%) disabled consumers who needed to return an item in the last year experienced issues.

One in seven (14%) said they could not return the item via the retailer’s suggested returns method, while one in five (22%) felt the retailer did not make reasonable adjustments to facilitate their return.

One in two (50%) of those who complained to the retailer reported it was difficult to make contact and two thirds were left dissatisfied with the retailer’s response after contacting them.

Which? and RIDC surveyed 844 disabled consumers in September 2022 and heard about their frustration at the obstacles they faced with returns.

Inaccessible drop-off points and unexpected return fees were some of the difficulties encountered – despite a requirement on businesses to make reasonable adjustments to accommodate consumers’ disabilities in certain circumstances under the Equality Act 2010.

One mobility scooter user, Lester, described the difficulties he encountered returning a pair of shoes he had bought from Amazon using a drop-off point at a local newsagent.

He told Which?: “I had to knock on the window to get them to come out as they didn’t have a ramp for me to get into the shop. People were walking past and looking at me as if I was trying to break in – it got a little embarrassing.”

Which? also spoke to wheelchair user Luisa, who said she has “stopped buying stuff” after experiencing a lack of access when trying to use InPost lockers to make returns.

She said: “InPost is one of the worst because you’ve got to be able to reach the locker. It’s all automated, so if you can’t reach the locker, you’re completely stuck. Online retailers really need to check that the shops and return services they use have got access.”

The Which? and RIDC survey also reveals some disabled consumers are facing unavoidable costs to send items back or have them collected.

It found one in six (16%) with a returns issue said they had to unexpectedly pay to return their unwanted items.

More retailers are beginning to charge customers to make returns that are not in-store, with the charge being applied by deducting a fee from the refund, charging a fee or asking the buyer to cover return costs.

As some disabled consumers cannot access stores as easily to make free returns, the fee to either send back items or have them collected is often unavoidable, which means they could be paying a premium for shopping online.

One respondent said: “For someone who is housebound, for whatever reason, shopping is already more expensive because you have to pay for delivery. Paying for return pick-ups adds a further burden on their budget.”

Many disabled consumers who took part in the research said they want to see free home collection services offered by retailers for returns.

The Which? and RIDC research comes ahead of new Ofcom rules set to come into effect in November 2023.

These will require parcel companies to have policies in place to ensure disabled customers can communicate their delivery needs. Firms will also need to ensure couriers meet those needs when delivering parcels.

Which? is calling on retailers and delivery companies to do more to make shopping easier for disabled customers and ensure they are complying with the Equality Act.

Reena Sewraz, Which? Money and Shopping Editor, said:

“As the festive season arrives, disabled consumers could be facing unreasonable barriers when they do their Christmas shopping, leaving them at a significant disadvantage.

“Retailers and returns services must up their game and ensure disabled consumers’ needs are not forgotten.”

Gordon McCullough, Chief Executive at the Research Institute for Disabled Consumers, said: 

“Returning a product is an ordinary transaction that every consumer should be able to make. The fact that there are still barriers for disabled people in doing this shows there is still a long way to go for some retailers in understanding their entire customer base and having their processes and procedures designed in an inclusive way.  

“Consulting disabled people in all areas of the customer experience is the only way to know if a process is inclusive to everyone and even better if you can do this right at the design stage. There are over 14 million disabled people in the UK, and like all consumers, they are more likely to return to a shop if they’ve had a satisfactory experience. The spending power of disabled people and their families is estimated at £274 million per year to UK businesses, so there is money at stake for those retailers who are not providing an inclusive returns service.”


Notes to editors:

Which? surveyed 844 members of the panel of the Research Institute for Disabled Consumers in September 2022 about their experience of making a return over the past 12 months.

Right of replies

Amazon said it’s committed to diversity, equity and inclusion. In terms of deliveries, customers can input specific delivery preferences on their account, including designated safe spaces, requesting delivery to a neighbour or choosing delivery to a collection point. It also has a process for returns to be collected by DPD if a customer has a disability. Its customer service team will work closely with customers concerned about accessibility and ensure a practical solution is implemented.

A spokesperson for InPost UK said: “We are sorry to hear of Luisa’s recent experience and would like to thank her for raising this. This is an important issue, and one we take very seriously. We welcome feedback from our UK locker users and remain firmly committed to providing consumers with a genuinely convenient and substantially improved ecommerce experience. But we can only achieve this when everybody benefits from our services, so improving the wider accessibility of our parcel lockers is a critical step on this journey. 

“That’s why we are currently testing new functionality to allow for better accessibility and locker compartment selection features. For customers in the UK this means an enhanced ability to choose a locker compartment that best suits them when returning and sending parcels from a locker. Once the testing phase is complete, we will roll this functionality out across our network from early 2023.”

Advice – How to take action if retailers discriminate

Having a disability is a characteristic protected under the The Equality Act 2010, so if you think you have been discriminated against by a retailer due to your disability, you have a legal right to take action.    

  • Ask for adjustments: Under the Equality Act 2010, companies are expected to make reasonable adjustments for disabled consumers. So if your disability prevents you from making a free in-store return, you have a legal right to ask retailers to make adjustments to accommodate you. It’s also worth checking the retailer’s terms and conditions and contacting customer service to ask what arrangements can be made for you.
  • Challenge the fee: Under the Consumer Rights Act 2015, items must be fit for purpose, as described and of a satisfactory quality. If they do not meet one or more of these qualities, you shouldn’t be charged a return fee.
  • Make a complaint: If you do feel you’ve been discriminated against due to your disability, you can make a complaint to the retailer regarding the discrimination you faced. Retailers’ contact details should be easy to find. You should make it clear to the retailer that your disability makes it difficult or prohibits you from making returns using the processes it provides, such as unfairly charging you when you don’t have the option of benefiting from free in-store returns. 
  • Report the firm to Trading Standards: If you think a retailer has broken the law or acted unfairly (i.e.they tried to stop you using your legal rights)  you can  report it to Trading Standards. 
  • Consider legal action: If you are unsatisfied with the outcome of your complaint, you may be able to use a dispute resolution scheme or take legal action, which can be assessed by seeking legal advice.

More information: Equality and Human Rights Commission – Using a service: reasonable adjustments for disabled people

About Which? 

Which? is the UK’s consumer champion, here to make life simpler, fairer and safer for everyone. Our research gets to the heart of consumer issues, our advice is impartial, and our rigorous product tests lead to expert recommendations. We’re the independent consumer voice that influences politicians and lawmakers, investigates, holds businesses to account and makes change happen. As an organisation, we’re not for profit and all for making consumers more powerful.

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