Money & Career

How to complain and get your money back

Don't get mad; follow our tips and get results

1. Shop smart

So you splurged on a pair of skinny jeans only to find that they’ve stretched out of shape after just two weeks of wear. The good news: You’re now on board with the wide-leg trend. The bad news: You have no automatic right to a refund if you take them back to the store. “As consumers, we often assume that if we’re not happy with a product, we can simply take it back for a full refund or exchange. But unless the store has agreed to it upfront, they’re under no obligation to give you that,” says Doug Simpson, CEO of the Canadian Council of Better Business Bureaus.

2. Know the rules

You’ll be much more successful in negotiating a refund if you know what you’re entitled to as a customer. “Consumers have a right to be compensated for shoddy goods or unsatisfactory services, but there is a responsibility to complain effectively,” says Christina Bisanz, executive director of the Consumers Council of Canada. It’s a good idea to read all your paperwork – receipts, warranties – in full before returning to the store, but knowing the laws of your province regarding consumer affairs is also part of that responsibility. For instance, in Ontario, a consumer has the right to cancel a sales contract and obtain a full refund if a product is not delivered within 30 days of the promised delivery date. (, a web portal of consumer information produced by the federal Office of Consumer Affairs, has loads of info about your rights.)

3. …And follow them

Many businesses have a refund policy and will gladly give you your money back if you play by their rules. When a store says you have only 14 days to return an item, don’t wait to take your purchase back until day 15. Similarly, don’t try to jump the queue at the returns counter or alienate staff by asking to speak directly to the manager. According to Bisanz, it’s best to start your complaint process with a front-line employee such as a sales clerk or customer-service agent. “Clearly outline the problem and give each person in the chain enough time to resolve your complaint. If you aren’t getting satisfaction, then move on to the manager, and if that doesn’t work, you could take your complaint to the head office,” she says.

4. Read the paperwork

If your shiny new MP3 player isn’t as user-friendly as the salesperson promised it would be, you’ll obviously need to present your receipt and warranty documents when you ask for a refund. But it’s also a good idea to read all your paperwork in full before returning to the store. The more informed you sound in your argument, the more likely you are to convince a salesperson that you deserve your money back. Knowing what you’re entitled to according to your receipt or contract will give you greater confidence in your position, says Simpson.

5. Keep your cool

It’s all too easy to get frustrated listening to “Dream Weaver” while waiting on hold for a customer-service agent. However, you’re much more likely to receive a refund if you keep your anger in check. “If the store thinks you’re a lunatic, they’re not going to do anything for you,” says Dale Goldhawk, an investigative journalist specializing in consumer issues. “Don’t be a patsy, but when you start screaming and yelling, the business will write you off.” Be firm and direct when explaining your problem to the customer-service agent, but always be polite. If you get nervous in confrontational situations, jot down some notes about what went wrong with your product or service and how you would like to be compensated. If you tend to lose your temper, positive thinking might help you stay calm. “Assume that you’re going to get cooperation. If you have that approach going in, you’re more likely to remain calm and reasonable,” suggests Simpson.

6. Stay the course

Don’t give up too easily on your request for a refund: Persistence is often the key to getting your money back. Goldhawk recommends being civil but holding your ground in your argument with a store clerk, especially if other customers are waiting to check out. “As the line builds behind you and more people realize that you’re having an argument with a store clerk, which is bad for business, you’re more likely to win,” he says.

7. Have an open mind

According to Simpson, there’s probably a good reason why a store might have a no-returns policy. For instance, a big-box home-renovations store may be able to send products back to a manufacturer because of the sheer volume of business it does; however, your friendly neighbourhood hardware store may not have that kind of relationship with its suppliers. Be prepared to accept alternative solutions to your problem, such as compensation for repairs, a partial refund or a credit note.

8. Take it to the courts

When you’ve exhausted every option and you still haven’t received a satisfactory response, you might consider taking the business in question to small-claims court. You won’t need
a lawyer to argue your case, and it’s a fairly inexpensive way to resolve a dispute if your claim is under the maximum allowed in your province ($3,000 to $10,000). But be forewarned: The court process can be a slow one involving lots of time-consuming paperwork. If you do decide to file a claim, Goldhawk says, you have a good shot at getting your money back, especially if you’re up against a larger company. “From all the cases I’ve observed going through small-claims court, there’s a built-in prejudice for the little guy, the consumer.”

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