Mail order, also known as direct marketing, is a fast-growing industry. Consumer NZ uses this approach and many firms sell good products and give outstanding service.

Yet there are many mail-order companies offering magic and miracles. Here are some tips for avoiding the ratbags of the industry and dealing with problems you may come up against.

Spotting the ratbags

To reduce the risk of dealing with a ratbag, look for:

  • A written, money-back guarantee if you are not happy for any reason.
  • A New Zealand office and street address. Never buy from a company that just gives a postal address.

Some 0800 telephone numbers are for the ordering office of Australian companies and this means that if you have a problem, you may have to ring Australia. Some people have experienced long delays in getting things put right or getting refunds when dealing with an Australian company.

When ordering, ask if the company is a New Zealand one. This is an advantage because if you have problems and go to a Disputes Tribunal, New Zealand companies can have tribunal decisions enforced against them. For overseas companies you may wish to stick with large and well-established firms.

Membership of the Marketing Association.

Members are required to meet the association's code of ethics and follow its recommendations.

Changing your mind

Once your order has been accepted, there is a legally binding contract. But if you want to change or cancel an order, contact the company straight away - many are happy to oblige, especially if the goods haven't been sent. If you receive goods and then decide you don't want them, there's usually not much you can do, because as long as the goods match their description, the sale is perfectly legal. However if there is a no-strings money-back guarantee you can send the goods back within the specified time and get a refund.

Faulty goods

The Consumer Guarantees Act requires that products are of "acceptable quality". This means they must be fit for all purposes they might commonly be used for, be acceptable in appearance and be safe and durable. Goods must also be fit for any purpose claimed by the seller and must be the same as any description of them. Where goods fail any of these guarantees, consumers can ask for them to be replaced or for their money back.

If mail order goods are damaged when you receive them, the company should replace them.

Return mail costs

If you return an item with a money-back guarantee simply because you've changed your mind, it's reasonable that you pay the return postage yourself. But if it's faulty or doesn't match its description, you have a right under the Consumer Guarantees Act to have the cost of return postage refunded to you.

Overpriced goods

If goods match their description and you knew the price before you ordered, you can't get your money back just because you found them cheaper somewhere else.

Non-arrival of goods

If a company has agreed to deliver goods to you it must do this or refund your money. If goods were lost in the mail, it is the company's job to sort this out.

But it may depend on how the goods were delivered and if they were stolen. If they arrived in the mail and disappeared from your letterbox, you may not be able to claim. But if a courier left them and did not hand them over in person, you may still be able to claim.

Goods you didn't order

Under the Unsolicited Goods and Services Act, you don't have to pay for something you didn't order.

If you do get something you didn't order, you have a choice. You can write to the company and give them 30 days to pick the item up, after which time, if nothing has happened, it is yours to keep. Or you can do nothing. With this option, the item is yours after three months.

Either way, you must not use or damage or sell the item, or prevent the company from retrieving it within the holding period. If you do, you will have to pay for it.

Taking it further

Marketing Association will help settle disputes involving members and, if possible, non-members.

Alternatively, you can file a claim with a Disputes Tribunal. Forms are available from your nearest District Court.

If you paid by credit card, contact the card issuer with the details of payment. They should credit your account for goods that have not arrived, but where payment has been accepted. If there is a problem over the quality of the goods, they may also be able to help.

Whatever the problem, you stand the best chance of getting it resolved if you've kept all the paperwork, including the ad or catalogue you ordered from. Keep copies of letters you send and make notes of phone calls, including the date and the names of the people you spoke to.

For problems with telemarketers see our Telemarketing article.

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