New Retail Ombudsman service launches- to a load of complaints

8 January 2015

boarded up shopsAt Bitterwallet, we’re big fans of ombudsman services, which normally offer consumers a further avenue of redress should a complaint about a product or service not be resolved satisfactorily. Now, a new ombudsman service for the retail sector has been launched- and deluged with complaints in its first three days.

We already have a number of ombudsmen that deal with things from financial services to energy- there’s even a furniture ombudsman- but the new Retail Ombudsman (TRO) service was launched on 2 January 2015. On that day alone, 107 complaints were lodged, this total rising to 312 by the end of that first weekend of the year. Most of the complaints were about delivery and returns as a result of the huge increase in online shopping before Christmas, followed by mislabelling and damaged packaging. The TRO is on course to meet its prediction of handling 100,000 cases this year as consumer awareness increases and more retailers sign up.

An estimated 2 million complaints remained unresolved in 2013, out of a total of around 6.4 million. An additional 6.8 million people are thought to have had a grievance but didn’t take steps to complain.

The service represents the first alternative dispute resolution (ADR) scheme in the retail sector, and will provide “a free, fair and independent” facility for dealing with unresolved disputes between firms and consumers, with 3,000 retailers already signed up as members. The ombudsman is funded by member subscriptions – retailers pay between £100 and £2,600 annually depending on the size and type of business. Although 3,000 might sound impressive, according to the British Retail Consortium there are at least 187,000 retailers in the UK, and membership of the ombudsman scheme is entirely voluntary.

In order to access the TRO service, you must have purchased goods or services for use or consumption from a UK retailer (including supermarkets, High street shops, independent shops, websites, garden centres, petrol stations but not furniture or professional services) and have

i) firstly made a complaint to the retailer direct and given them at least 8 weeks to respond; and

ii) made your complaint to TRO within 6 months of the retailer's decision.

After reviewing the case, TRO can make a determination that would be binding on any member retailer. However, if the retailer is not a member, the TRO, will still review a complaint and advise consumers of their rights. If the ombudsman find in the customer's favour, they will write to the retailer and “encourage them to reverse their decision”, but TRO currently has “no power to impose sanctions” upon non-member retailers.

However, the UK is set to implement new EU legislation on alternative dispute resolution (ADR) and as part of this the government is considering making ADR mandatory across all consumer goods and services in the UK – including retailers. Members of the TRO would automatically meet this requirement.

Also, if TRO rules in favour of a retailer and the complainant does not accept the decision, the consumer does  still have the right to take the case to court.

Chief ombudsman Dean Dunham, a barrister and consumer rights specialist, said: “In this day and age, with shopping online as well as the high street, there are millions of complaints. A large proportion get resolved, but a large proportion don’t. Those people are frustrated and they don’t know where to turn and can’t afford a lawyer. Now they can turn to the ombudsman.”

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