No try-ons, no returns for clothing: Retailers adjust rules as shoppers fume

Wendy Knowler Consumer journalist
Baby clothing and winter items for all ages were not listed as 'essential' under the original lockdown regulations, which have since been amended. But fitting rooms were not opened, leading to a struggle for shoppers to assess the correct sizes.
Baby clothing and winter items for all ages were not listed as 'essential' under the original lockdown regulations, which have since been amended. But fitting rooms were not opened, leading to a struggle for shoppers to assess the correct sizes.
Image: 123RF/yelenayemchuk

The slight easing of retail lockdown restrictions means South Africans can now buy winter clothing — you just can’t try them on in store and, in some cases, if they don’t fit, you can’t exchange them either.

Adding to the “will it fit?” consumer challenge is the fact that retailers are strongly discouraging and in many cases refusing to allow children to accompany their parents into stores.

“So single mothers who want to buy winter clothes for their kids at Pep stores are out of luck, because they can’t get babysitters, and Pep won’t allow children to accompany their mothers into the store,” Ivo Vegter tweeted.

“They also don’t do exchanges,” Tertius Strydom responded. “So if you buy clothes for your child without being able to try it on, you’ll be stuck with it if it doesn’t fit.”

Shoppers will be stuck with it until the nation moves into level 1 lockdown regulations, which is when Pep will accept returns. Woolworths also has a “no trying on in store/no returns, at least not in level 4” policy, but that will change on Thursday.

“Buying winter clothing at Woolworths is an action sport as you cannot exchange or return until lockdown is over, meaning, if you spend your money with them and the item doesn’t fit properly, it’s your problem,” tweeted @AccordingtoNtob. “Oh, and fitting rooms are closed!”

Klemmi Norris of Durban was outraged when told she couldn’t try on a jersey at Jam Clothing on the Bluff, “not even on top of my clothes!”.

“And they have a new no returns or exchanges policy advertised in their store.

“I have been inside my house gorging on food during the lockdown — I may not fit into my size clothes any more,” she said.

Retailers are not legally obliged to take back non-defective purchases, but most usually allow exchanges or issue credit vouchers as a customer service.

Legally, though, they are obliged to allow customers to inspect, and in the case of clothing, try on products before purchase.

In the case of online purchases, the Electronic Communications and Transactions Act gives consumers the right to return even non-defective products for a refund within a week of delivery.

But it appears that Covid-19’s strict hygiene considerations trump consumer protection laws.

Consumer Goods & Services ombudsman Magauta Mphahlele said she fully understood retailers’ decision to disallow the fitting of clothes and the return of purchased clothes in the context of Covid-19.

“I am not a health expert but I understand that the coronavirus can survive on surfaces and clothing for some time,” she said.

While the Consumer Protection Act gives consumers the right to examine (including trying on) goods before buying them, she said, “the big question is how this can be done safely within the present circumstances of a rampant virus”.

In terms of section 20(3) the consumer has no right of return if, for reasons of public health, a public regulation prohibits the return of those goods, for example underwear and earrings.

“In my view, while I am not aware of any public regulation that deals with the return of clothing during the lockdown, the principles of that section of the CPA apply because the health risks are real and present,” Mphahlele said.

“While it may be possible to mitigate the risk of the spread of the virus in store by means of wearing masks, and extra hand sanitation, the same might not be possible once the clothing is transported home, as we don't know the environment into which the clothes end up and how they are handled.

“So I would go with allowing a fitting, with strict health controls, but not a return due to health concerns.”

Woolworths, which reopened all but its airport stores on Monday, has closed its fitting rooms and was initially refusing all returns, but on Wednesday announced that from Thursday, it would allow refunds and exchanges.

“We have reviewed our processes to ensure that the product is handled safely and this required a little more time to get back up and running,” the company said. “Our returns policy has also been extended from a 60 days to 90 days.”

Pick n Pay also initially went the “no trying on in store, and no returns” route when resuming basic clothing sales on Friday, but faced with a consumer backlash, has since had a rethink on returns.

“Our clothing team has revised its policy,” PnP revealed on Twitter. “All stores have been advised to assist customers with exchanges should there be a problem with fit, with the exception of underwear due to health reasons.”

At Edgars and Jet stores, the fitting rooms are also off limits, but, says Edgars CEO Mike Elliott, “Customers are able to exchange or get a refund any time on items bought during this time.”

Ruth Behatie told TimesLIVE she was “surprised and disappointed” on being told she could not return winter tracksuits she’d bought the day before for her nine-year-old child.

“I was told I must hold on to the clothes until level 1 of lockdown, which could be September for all we know!

“I have researched the scientific knowledge on the lifespan of Covid-19 on fabrics and very little is available, but inferences are being drawn from what is known about how long the virus lasts on other surfaces, the longest being 24 hours on cardboard.

“Can stores not take it upon themselves to isolate returns for a few days at their premises and allow people an exchange?”

  • The Disaster Management Act regulations do not prohibit children to enter retail stores, though many security guards placed at store entrances are refusing to allow parents to enter with their children.

“We are aware that not allowing children [into stores] is not stipulated in the regulations,” Woolworths said.

“We will ensure that all our store team members are reminded that they are able to allow families into our stores.

“As a precautionary measure, we do however encourage shoppers to leave their loved ones and children at home, if possible, for their own health and safety.”

GET IN TOUCH: You can contact Wendy Knowler for advice with your consumer issues via e-mail: or on Twitter: @wendyknowler.

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