Retailers can ban buyers for returning too many items or making too many complaints, as Nannette Herbert discovered.
Herbert told Guardian Money that she had been banned by a number of retailers – including Amazon and Waitrose – for filing complaints and refund requests.
Businesses are sometimes alerted when a customer displays “unusual” activity, such as requesting what could be considered a disproportionate number of refunds, and may prevent them from making future purchases.
Consumers can also be banned for filing too many complaints if the retailer feels they are abusing the process.
Amazon told Herbert, who lives in London, that it closed its account last month, saying it had “constantly requested refunds for a large number of orders”.
She says the ban – which has since been lifted – had caused “many different problems”, including the self-published author being locked out of his publishing account.
“They said I gave back too much, which is not true at all,” she says. “I kept most of what I ordered…and I ordered a lot of stuff. It doesn’t say anywhere in their terms and conditions that they prohibit you from returning a certain number of items.
Waitrose also blocked Herbert’s online account in December last year after she made repeated complaints about the quality of the food delivered, after “struggling efforts to meet” her needs.
“They were shipping outdated stuff,” Herbert says. “They expect me to pay full price, and if I complain about it, they ban me. I’m blamed for their mistakes.
In response, Amazon told us that returning purchases from Amazon.co.uk “is easy and free on millions of items”, and that customers can return most within 30 days.
He adds, “We want everyone to be able to use Amazon, but there are rare occasions when someone abuses our service for an extended period of time, and we take appropriate action.
“We never make these decisions lightly, and if a customer thinks we’ve made a mistake, we encourage them to contact us directly so we can review their account.”
Waitrose told us that its partners (employees) “are trained to be as discerning as our customers and will choose products with the longest date codes available”.
He adds: “We want all of our customers to be delighted when they shop with us and, although we achieve this in the vast majority of cases, we are sorry when a customer is disappointed.
“Despite our strenuous efforts to accommodate Miss Herbert, we were unable to meet her needs online and felt it was best for her to choose her own food from our stores.”
Can I get banned just for returning a lot of items…?
Retailers can refuse to do business with a customer, so it’s not breaking any rules for them to ban those who repeatedly return their purchases.
“No business can be forced to have you as a customer if they don’t want to, and they don’t have to give a reason,” says Martyn James, an independent consumer expert.
Lisa Webb, consumer law expert at Which?, says: “Retailers may be within their rights to ban customers who consistently return items or complain. However, they should only do so with a good reason.
“Returning items has an environmental cost, so shoppers should consider this when making their next purchase and try to buy sustainably.”
Even if a business decides to bar someone from making further purchases, they must honor refund requests if your item is damaged, doesn’t arrive, or isn’t as described.
Online retailers also give you 14 days to change your mind, for example if you want to try on clothes at home.
If you are in debt to a company, they should work with you to establish a reasonable repayment plan before closing your account.
… or for making a lot of complaints?
The simple answer is that you shouldn’t be banned for filing genuine complaints, or penalized for reporting issues to a mediator or dispute resolution service.
If the retailer thinks you are being abusive or making “vexatious” complaints, they may decide not to do business with you in the future.
James adds: “As long as you don’t abuse the process or the staff, you absolutely shouldn’t be penalized for filing a complaint.”
Is there a way to appeal a company’s decision?
Webb says if you’ve been banned and think it’s unfair, “follow the company’s complaint process to find out why. If you get an unsatisfactory response, consumers can escalate the issue to an alternative dispute resolution (ADR) system or industry ombudsman.
Check if the trader is registered for an ADR on their website. If you can’t find any information, contact the company to ask for details about their ADR program.
If the retailer does not use one, ask if they would be willing to do so in this case, advises Citizens Advice. If the company agrees, they should find one and then provide you with the details.
What steps can I take to avoid being banned?
This is a tricky area – companies usually don’t reveal what the refund limit is, for example, or what complaints they would consider vexatious.
If you have a particular problem, you can take steps to reduce the number of returns and refund requests you have to make.
For example, if you’re having trouble with packages stolen from outside your home after they’ve been left by couriers, you can have your items delivered to work or to a local collection point.
In the end, if you had more than one reason to complain, it might be best to try using another provider for the service you need.