John Lewis spouts rubbish over faulty kettle

Back in 1979, the BBC gave us Blankety Blank with Terry Wogan (and, later, Les Dawson, then Lily Savage). In homage to that long-running panel show, here’s a question:

Just under two years ago, I bought a kettle from John Lewis. The warranty was for one year. It stopped working. When I took it back to be replaced, the shop assistants’ faces went BLANK when I mentioned the BLANK.

And the answer is…? Well, the first BLANK is a red-herring because their faces really did go blank. However, the second BLANK you’re looking for was also born in 1979, and is the very useful “Sale of Goods Act 1979”. Yes, I admit, a bit of a dry answer, but this straightforward piece of legislation has recently saved me fifty quid.

I went back to John Lewis to return a kettle that was 21 months old as it had suddenly stopped working. The assistant in the Electrical After-Sales office immediately started to shake her head, saying that it had exceeded its one-year warranty period, and that I needed to take it up with the manufacturer directly.

It was a convincing display, and it’s very possible that she believed her “advice” to be true. But how many of us would have accepted it at face-value? As a former solicitor, I know about “statutory rights”. Bully for me! But what about all those who don’t? Well, you’d be fifty quid down in having your statutory rights denied.

It ain’t rocket science; this is all you need to know:

If you buy something from someone whose business is the selling of goods (e.g. a shop!), the Sale of Goods Act 1979 (the “Act”) automatically gives you a bundle of rights relating to that purchase. One of those rights is that the goods must be of satisfactory quality. So the question becomes “would the reasonable person expect a 50 quid kettle to last for more than 21 months when it’s being used by just one person domestically?”. This right is implied into the contract between buyer and seller (it has nothing to do with the manufacturer). Also, this right is in addition to, and is quite separate from, any warranty offered. And the Act allows you six years to bring a claim, starting from the date that the goods failed to be of satisfactory quality.

So, now you know your statutory rights, let’s get back to John Lewis:

In response to being told that the warranty had expired, I patiently explained that I was not wishing to rely on the warranty, but rather on my statutory rights under the Act. The assistant told me that I needed to take it up with the manufacturer. I explained that the Act implies a contract between the buyer and the seller (not the manufacturer). She told me that my one year was up. I explained that I have 6 years under the Act to bring a claim, and that, under the Act, an item needs to last for as long as it is reasonable to expect it to last.

Cue entrance of her manager, handbag on arm, as if she were anxious to start her tea-break. The manager repeated all the nonsense that the assistant had said, so I tried to explain that I had rights under the Act, and that, were I to be forced to take the issue to the County Court, a judge would find in my favour, because a £50 kettle should, reasonably, be expected to last more than 21 months. She told me that I was wrong. However, she was willing to allow me to take a replacement kettle of equivalent value at no extra cost.

We were getting somewhere, but it was quite a protracted battle. I was beginning to doubt whether my recollection of the Act was correct. It’s a bit like when you say a familiar word over and over again until it starts to sound wrong. Does John Lewis train its after-sales staff in hypnosis, I wondered, desperately trying to look around the eyes, not into the eyes…

The manager handed me back to the assistant, but as she left, still clutching the tea-break handbag, she looked angry, as if it were I who was being unreasonable in my request to rely on the Act. As the assistant started to bag up the faulty kettle, and fill out a form, she told me that the only reason I was being allowed to replace the kettle was because of the manager’s act of “goodwill”. As I disputed this with her, she said “no, no, no, no, no” until I stopped speaking, upon which she said that the item was out of warranty.

It would have made an excellent Beadle’s About, I cast in the role of Victor Meldrew, or some other kettle-wielding curmudgeon.

So I wrote to John Lewis (twice, because my first letter received no response), asking them about the big posters displayed behind their tills. You’ve probably seen them, but not fully taken in their message. They state “Your statutory rights are not affected”. AH-HAH! So “statutory rights” DO exist? In which case, I wanted to know why John Lewis’ staff were hell-bent on denying the existence of them.

The consumer rights tunnel sometimes feels long, but there was light at the end of this one. John Lewis replied and apologised for “letting [me] down very badly”. “Yes you can rely on the Act, yes it is irrespective of whether the warranty has expired, and yes your contract is with us the sellers, not the manufacturer” they said. And what’s more, here’s a complimentary voucher for a cup of tea and a pastry in the John Lewis canteen.

A breakthrough! But what a battle to get them to see sense. If you find yourself in a similar position, the only weapon you will need is the Sale of Goods Act 1979, and just keep looking around their eyes, not into their eyes. I’m off to claim my cup of tea at John Lewis; let’s hope their kettle’s working.