THE onus is on retailers to make sure their products last, not on consumers to pay up when they don’t, writes Jane Bradley
Buying a string of £4.99 Christmas lights at a well known DIY retailer the other week, I was asked at the checkout if I wanted to take out insurance.
In a bit of a hurry and not really listening, I figured the sales assistant must have been confused as to the value of what I was buying – or perhaps an unusually cautious person – so I thought little of it, declined and went on my way.
But a few days later, on another trip to the same store to buy an £8 torch, I was asked the same question.
Insurance. For a torch. In case it broke down, the cash desk chap helpfully explained. The cover would cost a one-off fee of £4 – half the original price of the product.
To give him credit, he was embarrassed. “We have to ask,” he muttered sheepishly, admitting that cashiers were told to aim at selling two policies a day.
I hate insurance. In most situations, I would prefer to take the risk, especially when it comes to fairly low-cost items. For all of the times I have not taken out £5-a-month insurance for a new laptop, printer or mobile phone, I have saved enough to replace the odd faulty product five times over,
Of course, refusing to take it out has left me in a sticky situation at times.
I have a permanently cracked smartphone screen because I accidentally smashed it on the bathroom floor tiles and am now stuck with it until my contract runs out sometime into the next millennium.
Meanwhile, to convince my dishwasher to do its job, I have to hold down three buttons at once with the fingers of the same hand, dance a jig and coaxingly sing it its favourite song before it grudgingly agrees to whirr into action – a quirk which started, of course, just weeks after the inclusive two-year guarantee ran out.
There are certain situations in which insurance is absolutely necessary – home insurance, for example, when a leak or a fire could, in the worst case scenario, leave you hundreds of thousands of pounds out of pocket. Or travel insurance. Without it, you could find yourself faced with a £30,000 air ambulance bill to bring you home if something went wrong – or lying stranded and seriously ill in a hospital bed in a foreign country, stuck thousands of miles away from family and friends.
All of these are situations where the risk outweighs the cost of an insurance policy. But to pay for cover in case a torch breaks down? Really?
Insurance has become a racket. After all, why should we, as consumers, pay more because the products we are buying are likely to stop working in the near future?
A possibly slightly biased study by furniture retailer AHF recently discovered that items of furniture and appliances last on average six and a half years less than official consumer advice claims they should.
The company took lifespan averages from advice offered by consumer sites and industry experts such as GoCompare, MrAppliance and The Sleep Council and then quizzed people on the length of time before they had had to replace an item due to it breaking down or wearing out.
The report found that while experts and watchdogs state a freezer should be replaced by householders every 16 years, they are lasting more like just over six and a half years, almost ten years less than they should.
It added that although instructions commonly suggest changing a washing machine every 12 years, the average lifespan of such an appliance in Britain is just 6.21 years.
All of this, of course, just backs up the opinion that insurance is necessary. Take out the extra cover once the guarantee on your washing machine runs out, the manufacturer will tell you, and you can enjoy “worry-free” laundry for the rest of your days.
What really galls me about this is that consumer protection laws mean you should be able to claim some recompense on a product if it breaks down within its “reasonable” lifespan. For example, a reasonable lifespan of a set of £4.99 fairy lights may well be just a year or so. Fair enough. The lifespan of a £400 washing machine, however, should probably be longer than the two-year guarantee which many manufacturers slap on as a standard.
In Scotland, under the Prescription and Limitation Act, a consumer has up to five years to complain about an item which has a fault. The problem is, a lot depends on the individual circumstances - whether the product has been used for that entire time or has been sitting in a box; if the fault was likely to have been there when you bought the product.
In reality, many retailers try to pass the buck to the manufacturer once a six-month limit has been reached, claiming it is no longer their problem. It is.
This year, the Consumer Rights’s Act 2015 was introduced, which was supposed to make life easier for consumers and their rights. While this is a step in the right direction, the reality is that most people are unlikely to mount a legal challenge against a major company over a product costing less than £100.
The real problem lies in retailers who are forcing their staff to try to coerce customers into paying for things they don’t want or need – or companies which will not put their hands up and take the hit when a consumer has been sold a faulty product.
They need to know this is not acceptable – that it should not be standard for us to think that constantly paying extra for insurance is OK – or worse, an essential cost of any purchase.
And we need to think before we buy and stop blindly following what retailers want to become the norm.