9 Apr 2020

Covid-19 lockdown: Your consumer questions answered

4:56 pm on 9 April 2020

It's an odd time for the shopping public, with much closed and new rules popping out most days.

It means there is a bit of confusion about consumer rights. However, we had the good people from Consumer NZ help answer your questions. Below is a summary of the conversation with head of research Jessica Wilson and consumer advocate Aneleise Gawn.


Photo: 123RF

I am getting adverts from google ads for face masks at Dick Smiths that range from $79 to $349 for up to 50 disposable face masks. Is this price gouging? What should I do if I think someone is price gouging? Is it actually illegal?

Aneleise: Sounds a lot like price gouging to us. Price gouging isn't illegal - retailers can set their own prices. However, complaints about this type of behaviour have led the government to set up an email address for people to report retailers that may be taking advantage of consumers: pricewatch@mbie.govt.nz

We paid a 50 percent deposit for a wedding venue but the big day has been canned because of the lockdown. The venue says it is going to keep our deposit. What are our rights?

Aneleise: A company trying to do this is on shaky ground. Like other companies, it needs to ensure its terms and conditions - including its cancellation terms - are fair. We think a clause that allowed it to keep your deposit in this situation would be unfair and a breach of the Fair Trading Act.

It may also be a case of a "frustrated contract" - a legal term that describes situations where a contract can't be fulfilled due to circumstances outside the control of either party. As a result of the lockdown, the venue can't hire out its premises, and you and your guests can't travel to the wedding. When a contract is frustrated, you're entitled to ask for a refund.

My biggest question is about those sites that are popping up saying "buy local, here are the business still operating" of vineyards and breweries and kombucha. Are the criteria strict enough? Should I feel guilty about spending $75 on tea (you don't need to answer that. Of course I should)?

Jessica: The online sale of alcohol has been deemed an essential service. Provided these businesses are operating within the conditions set, they can sell their products. Obviously, there will be differing views on the essential-ness of alcohol. Hope you enjoyed the $75 tea.

If my original plane flight was cancelled due to Covid-19 but I have been re-booked on more expensive fare, do I have to pay the difference? Can I just get a refund or a credit on the original instead?

Aneleise: If the airline has rebooked you on a pricier fare, we don't think you should have to pay the difference. Unfortunately, our consumer laws don't require airlines to provide refunds when flights are cancelled for reasons outside their control. You'll usually only be entitled to a refund if you've bought a fully refundable ticket. Otherwise, you can ask for a credit.

My travel insurance firm has been refusing to pay out costs despite our insurance being taken out before the pandemic. Can they do that? What recourse do we have?

Jessica: Most insurers won't cover delays and cancellations resulting from pandemics. Their terms and conditions typically exclude these situations. But if you think you've been misled about the cover your policy provides, you can make a complaint to the Insurance and Financial Services Ombudsman.

I had tickets for a gig in Auckland which has been postponed. Can I get my money back now or do I have to hang on to the tickets?

Aneleise: If the postponed dates don't suit, we recommend asking for a refund.

I had booked flights and a hotel to get to a cancelled show in Auckland. I've got my money for the show back but I'm guessing no one is going to pay the other costs…

Jessica: Ticket agents aren't required to compensate you for other costs, such as flights or accommodation. You'll need to contact the airline and hotel about a refund or credit.

I had a European anniversary trip with my wife planned for June. Is my only option to cancel the trip and lose the money?

Aneleise: If your airline cancels your flight, you should get a credit (at the minimum). If you cancel now, you'll need to check your airline's cancellation terms to see how it deals with these situations. You may get a credit or be charged a cancellation fee. Your other option would be to consider rescheduling. You'll need to check with any accommodation providers you've booked with about their cancellation policies. Many are being flexible at this time.

I rang my local hardware store, which can now take phone or online orders, because I wanted paint. They said they can't sell it because it's not an essential item. Can we find out what essential items are? Are they allowed to say no?

Jessica: Essential consumer goods (other than food) are limited to products that "keep people warm, replace key household appliances and maintain people's health". If the item doesn't fall within these categories, the shop shouldn't sell it. You can find more info about what can be sold at the Ministry's website here.

Who is making the rules for essential businesses? I wanted a particular brand of rat killer but apparently of the eight on the shelf in the store they are only allowed to sell two. It doesn't make a lot of sense.

Aneleise: The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment is the lead agency. However, businesses are expected to use their judgement about which items they can supply to comply with the government guidelines. The rat killer decision sounds a little odd. We'd suggest asking the store for more info.

I can just make my mortgage payments at the moment, though I'm a little worried about the future. What should I be wary of before taking the holiday that is now available?

Jessica: A mortgage holiday lets you defer making repayments. But it's not a holiday from interest - that keeps being charged. This means it will cost more to repay your mortgage and may take longer. If you're struggling, you could talk to your bank about reducing repayments instead so you're still reducing your debt. If you do take a mortgage holiday, keep it as short as possible.

I purchased a computer recently and it has broken while on warranty. Obviously, everyone is shut. What are my options? What should they have to do?

Aneleise: Electronics retailers and repair services are allowed to operate in order to sell and fix essential items. Check whether the retailer that sold the computer is operating and what your options are for getting it repaired. If the store is closed, you may have to wait for a remedy. Regardless of whether the warranty has expired, you'll still be covered by the Consumer Guarantees Act if the product is faulty.

Noel Leeming had a promotion on printers saying they'd deliver in 3-4 days. I ordered a printer and a ream of paper. It's day 4 today and the courier just dropped off the paper. I rang to see where the printer was, and they said they had to get stock from the supplier (I'm guessing China) and it wouldn't get here until end next week (all up, 14 days from order!) Should they be doing promotions when they can't meet the demand?

Jessica: Retailers need to ensure goods are delivered within the time agreed or within a reasonable time if no time has been stated. If a retailer is advertising goods they don't have in stock, they need to make this clear upfront.

Countdown is asking customers who want to be considered priority for deliveries to share private health information with them including doctors' letters. It is impossible to get deliveries in many areas unless you are a priority customer. This is surely an invasion of privacy?

Aneleise: Any retailer collecting information about you needs to be clear about the reasons why they are asking for it and what they are going to use it for.

We came here on holiday and are in possession of a rented camper van. We have been unable to return it or raise anyone at the company since the lockdown began. We are concerned about our consumer rights in this situation, given that we have been unable to contact the company.

Jessica: If you're not using the vehicle, the company shouldn't continue to charge you. However, if you're still driving it, keep a record of your usage as you may be liable for this.

If a NZ-based airline offers you future credit to use within 'x' months, but you are unable book a new flight within that time (due to continued travel restrictions or other factors outside of the airline's control), then will the airline be required to offer some sort of refund? Or will you lose all value of the original ticket?

Aneleise: We'd expect the airline to extend the credit in this situation.

I was wondering if there could be some clarification around craft and wool shops selling wool (not wool clothing) and if they are an essential service.

Jessica: Unfortunately, this one is not an essential service.

A holiday home rental company that I booked a home with for 28 March - 2 April has cancelled my booking and is refusing to give me the "non-refundable" deposit back. Does this seem fair? What actions can I take to recuperate my money that I consider stolen?

Jessica: No, that doesn't sound fair at all. Your next step would be going to the Disputes Tribunal to seek a refund. Alternatively, if you paid by credit or debit card, you may be able to get a chargeback - a refund to your card. Contact your bank or card issuer about this.

*Consumer NZ also has more helpful information on their website.

  • If you have symptoms of the coronavirus, call the NZ Covid-19 Healthline on 0800 358 5453 (+64 9 358 5453 for international SIMs) or call your GP - don't show up at a medical centre

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