Martyn James: What you need to know as high street shops reopen - from changing rooms to refunds

Resolver money expert Martyn James looks at consumers’ relationship with the high street after lockdown rules ease across England

When it comes to easing of lockdown rules, there are two groups of people.

Those who rush out on the first day for haircuts, shopping sprees and drinks – and those who choose to wait it out to see what happens.

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If you’re in the latter group, then you may well have despaired about scenes of mega queues outside certain cut-price retailers. But don’t worry – now things have settled down a bit, here’s what you need to know if you’re popping to the shops.

Resolver money expert Martyn James looks at consumers’ relationship with the high street after lockdown rules ease across England. (Pic: PA)

Do we need the high street?

In the last year, complaints about online shops and deliveries have hit extraordinary levels with over a quarter of a million complaints about online shops alone.

So I, for one, am all for a return to the high street (following the rules, of course).

Try to support your local, independent shops first – they need your help the most. And you’ll miss them when they’ve gone.

Around the UK

Firstly, the rules are still different around the UK – so be aware of the differences if you’re planning on crossing a border – including the travel rules.

In Scotland, though some shops were able to open earlier than the rest of the UK, non-essential retailers aren’t likely to open till 26 April.

Outdoor drinking and dining doesn’t open till the 26th in Wales – though shops and hairdressers are open.

This is changing rapidly though so keep an eye on new announcements.

Queues and masks

The world hasn’t reverted back to normal – and Covid restrictions are still in place.

So don’t be surprised if you have to queue in the streets to get into certain shops, which may take the shine of the experience a little.

One of the biggest areas of complaint in the last year when it came to shopping in the real world was mask wearing and enforcement.

It’s unfair to expect shops to act like the police, dealing with aggressive mask dodgers. But expect a much tougher enforcing of the rules than last time.

In Northern Ireland, click and collect is back on at non-essential stores – but not browsing for now.

Metres matter

Speaking of which, keep your distance.

The two-metre rule is still in effect and isn’t due to be reconsidered officially until 17 May as we mentioned in our guide to lockdown easing last week.

How this works in practice is anyone’s guess, as you may have noticed if you’ve been to a supermarket over lockdown.

Do try to stick to the rules where possible – every little obedient action helps increase our changes of further restrictions being lifted.

Changing rooms

After the first lockdown finished, many people were surprised to find that shop changing rooms were still closed.

It’s likely that this will be the case when shops open on Monday for the time being (though many retailers were reluctant to share the finer points of this and other questions when I called them for this article). The age-old problem of whether items will fit (or suit you) will continue to be decided at home for now.

Returns

Which brings us to the most important question you need to ask at the till – make sure you find out what the returns policy is for the store before you pay.

If you want to take a few items home to try on, speak to a sales assistant first – don’t assume you can do this.

Your right to return goods that are perfectly fine (not damaged or wonky) is at the shop’s discretion though your statutory rights (more later) are not affected. Why not take some time checking out the returns policy on the retailer’s website while in the queue to pay?

Online benefits

Under the Consumer Contract Regulations, when you buy most goods online, you have a 14-day window during which you can change your mind or cancel the order.

You don’t have this when you buy in person, so don’t assume you can return something just because you’ve changed your mind. Any goods or services that are damaged or not as advertised can be returned for a full refund within 30 days no matter whether you bought online or in-store.

Get / keep the receipt

Remember gift receipts? Those fabulous bits of paper that mean you can return a Christmas present you hate?!

Don’t forget to ask for a receipt at the till so you can return items you’re buying if the recipient doesn’t want them – and hold on to your till receipt too.

Waving your online banking app at a shop assistant as proof of purchase is not only unlikely to work, but also potentially compromising your bank account.

Save alternative proof of purchase for emergencies – and never reveal your bank details.

Look don’t touch

A surprisingly large number of people have contacted me to say they are unhappy with the fact that people can go into shops and touch things willy nilly – with fresh produce the number focus of anger.

The pandemic has changed the way we shop fundamentally – so expect to see many traders introducing ‘look but don’t touch’ rules. Even on a market stall, don’t tap those melons! Don’t assume you can touch things like fresh food unless the retailer says it’s okay.

The same may even go for slipping on a jacket in store too.

Gift cards and vouchers

I’m expecting 2021 to be filled with complaints about vouchers and gift cards.

Specifically redeeming them. Many of your gift cards and vouchers might have expired over lockdown. Don’t wait until you get in store to argue this one out.

Go online and see if the firm has extended ‘use by’ dates first. If not, check to see if the online store is accepting vouchers or gift cards (many haven’t been for online purchases).

If that’s the case, you can argue you’ve not been able to use the voucher or gift card and the retailer should at the very least extend the deadline.

In store returns

I’ve been flooded with enquiries from people who’ve been told to wait till the high street opens before physically returning items.

That customer service desk is likely to be super busy, so why not have a little ‘fly by’ the staff on the door of the shop to ask what the deal is with returning items, rather than lugging them down to the store, waiting in a queue, then being sent home again.

You don’t have to queue to ask a quick question.

Out of hours

Shops will be allowed to extend their opening hours to 10pm to help space out shoppers and avoid congestion.

So why not plan a later shopping spree after the initial rush?

As savvy sales fans know, supermarkets tend to restock their shelves or mark down items in the evening, so it’s a good time to find a scarce item or get a bargain.

Be kind

And finally, getting back to something even close to normality is going to be weird, fabulous, frustrating and fundamentally different.

Expect strange quirks, a bit of officiousness and a few moments where you close your eyes and count to 10. But above all else, be kind and courteous to the staff of the stores you shop in. They’ve had a tough year and they’re now back on the front end, dealing with all of us and our many questions. Show them you care.

Need help with a shop situation? Resolver can help sort things out for free.