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Retailers and returns services failing disabled consumers

Inaccessible drop-off points and retailers charging unexpected return fees were some of the difficulties encountered. Photo: Getty

People with disabilities are having trouble returning items bought online as some retailers and returns services do not accommodate to their specific needs.

Inaccessible drop-off points and unexpected return fees were some of the difficulties encountered, according to Which?, despite a requirement on businesses to make reasonable adjustments to accommodate consumers’ disabilities in certain circumstances under the Equality Act 2010.

One mobility scooter user, Lester, described the difficulties he encountered returning a pair of shoes he had bought from Amazon using a drop-off point at a local newsagent.

He told Which?: “I had to knock on the window to get them to come out as they didn’t have a ramp for me to get into the shop. People were walking past and looking at me as if I was trying to break in – it got a little embarrassing.”

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The consumer body also spoke to wheelchair user Luisa, who said she has “stopped buying stuff” after experiencing a lack of access when trying to use InPost lockers to make returns.

She said: “InPost is one of the worst because you’ve got to be able to reach the locker. It’s all automated, so if you can’t reach the locker, you’re completely stuck. Online retailers really need to check that the shops and return services they use have got access.”

The survey done in partnership with the Research Institute for Disabled Consumers (RIDC) found one in two (49%) disabled consumers who needed to return an item in the last year experienced issues.

One in seven (14%) said they could not return the item via the retailer’s suggested returns method, while one in five (22%) felt the retailer did not make reasonable adjustments to facilitate their return.

One in two (50%) of those who complained to the retailer reported it was difficult to make contact and two thirds were left dissatisfied with the retailer’s response after contacting them.

“As the festive season arrives, disabled consumers could be facing unreasonable barriers when they do their Christmas shopping, leaving them at a significant disadvantage,” Reena Sewraz, Which? money and shopping editor, said.

“Retailers and returns services must up their game and ensure disabled consumers’ needs are not forgotten,” she added.

The Which? and RIDC survey also reveals some disabled consumers are facing unavoidable costs to send items back or have them collected.

It found one in six (16%) with a returns issue said they had to unexpectedly pay to return their unwanted items.

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More retailers are beginning to charge customers to make returns that are not in-store, with the charge being applied by deducting a fee from the refund, charging a fee or asking the buyer to cover return costs.

As some disabled consumers cannot access stores as easily to make free returns, the fee to either send back items or have them collected is often unavoidable, which means they could be paying a premium for shopping online.

One respondent said: "For someone who is housebound, for whatever reason, shopping is already more expensive because you have to pay for delivery. Paying for return pick-ups adds a further burden on their budget."

Many disabled consumers who took part in the research said they want to see free home collection services offered by retailers for returns.

“Returning a product is an ordinary transaction that every consumer should be able to make. The fact that there are still barriers for disabled people in doing this shows there is still a long way to go for some retailers in understanding their entire customer base and having their processes and procedures designed in an inclusive way,” Gordon McCullough, chief executive at the Research Institute for Disabled Consumers, said.

“There are over 14 million disabled people in the UK, and like all consumers, they are more likely to return to a shop if they’ve had a satisfactory experience. The spending power of disabled people and their families is estimated at £274 million per year to UK businesses, so there is money at stake for those retailers who are not providing an inclusive returns service,” he added.

Under new Ofcom rules set to come into effect in November 2023, parcel companies will be required to have policies in place to ensure disabled customers can communicate their delivery needs. Firms will also need to ensure couriers meet those needs when delivering parcels.

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