What are my options for returning online items?

Not only is buying goods online more convenient (and often much cheaper), but when compared to shopping on the high street, you’re actually much more protected as a consumer. Technically, high street shops do not have to accept returned goods unless they are broken or faulty in some way. While many may offer ‘no quibbles’ returns to a limited extent (especially around Christmas and New Year), they do have the right to refuse to accept a return.

Online buys, by comparison, are protected by the Consumer Contracts Regulations, which means you have the right to return an item and get either a replacement or a refund.

The reason you have these extra rights when you return goods online is that your initial description is based on a short description or a photograph, which may not always give you an accurate representation of the actual goods. If you buy something online and it’s not exactly as you thought it would be (based on the description or picture), or you simply change your mind, you can send it back.

Cooling off periods

When you buy something online you are effectively entering into a written contract between yourself and the seller. That means you have a 14-day ‘cooling off period’ from the point at which you receive your goods, during which you have every right to change your mind. If you decide to return the item for a refund, all you have to do initially is to notify them within this two-week window, usually by email. You then have a further 14 days from the point of notification to pack the goods up and send them back.

Stuff you can’t send back

Just like high street shops, online retailers have the right to refuse to refund certain goods. Under the Regulations, you don’t have a right to cancel on:

  • Tailor-made or personalised items
  • CDs, DVDs, games and software if the seal has been broken
  • Perishable goods
  • Goods that are sealed for hygiene or health reasons (such as underwear)

Always check the returns policy before you buy

It only takes a couple of minutes to go through the seller’s terms and conditions to check their returns policy and make sure you have the right to cancel. This section of their T&C will also tell you whether or not you have to pay for the returns, and if there are any special requirements (such as how you send the returns back, what type of packaging is required, etc). Failure to comply with any of these could mean you’re left with either a big bill or the goods you didn’t want in the first place. As with any online transaction, it really does pay to read the small print first. Calling a retailer themselves, like Amazon, can resolve issues like this if you can’t find the T&Cs.


Checking the returns policy also lets you know if the seller will only provide a credit note on returns, rather than a full refund. However, under the Consumer Contracts regulations, that only is applicable if you’re returning the goods because they’re unwanted, rather than ‘not as described’ or faulty. If the reason for the return is for anything other than the fact that you’ve simply changed your mind, then you have every right to demand a full refund, rather than just a credit note. If something is actually faulty then you are protected under the Consumers Rights Act, and the retailer must provide you with a full refund and not a credit note.

Who pays the postage?

Again, this is something that the retailer must lay out clearly in their returns policy, which you will find under their T&Cs. Most online retailers will provide you with a printed returns address label, and in many cases the return will be free of charge. However, the retailer does have the right to charge the customer postage and packaging charges, which you will have to fund yourself. It’s important that no matter how you send back the goods (whether they’re paid for by the seller or by you), make sure you get proof of postage, just in case the seller disputes the fact that you have returned them. If you’re returning faulty goods then you shouldn’t have to pay to do so. If the seller tries to force you to pay for them you can take up the issue with the Trading Standards Authority.

Instore returns

If you’re buying from an online retailer who also has ‘real world’ stores then you may be able to simply return your item instore (as long as you take your proof of purchase) and get a refund on the spot.