Shoppers can now get legally binding decisions on complaints from Ombudsman Services if they get nowhere with the retailer itself, although they'll only be able to complain about members of the voluntary scheme.
The independent complaints arbitrator has today launched an online service for retail complaints following on from the launch of a phone helpline last month. An "enhanced" service will be launched in July, although the details of what this will involve have yet to be revealed.
It is the second such scheme launched this year – the other, The Retail Ombudsman, began operating in January.
For Ombudsman Services, the new scheme adds to the complaints it already handles on communications, energy, property and copyright disputes. See MoneySavingExpert.com's How to complain guide for more information on your rights when it comes to bad service or dodgy goods.
It says it's created the retail dispute scheme because research conducted for its annual report, Consumer Action Monitor, revealed that there were a total of 66 million complaints about products or services in 2014 – double the number recorded in the previous year – with the most common complaints involving retail (28%).
The CAM attributes the rise in complaints to the increased number of online-only retailers – 9.2 million complaints were recorded about internet sales and services last year.
How good is the service?
Ombudsman Services has handled over 1.3m complaints since it began in 2002 and says it has a "wealth of multi-sector experience".
In terms of its new retail provision, it will accept complaints about any product or service in the UK retail sector, but it will only be able to investigate grievances about companies that sign up to the scheme. This is because the Government says it's not mandatory for retailers to belong to a redress scheme.
The Ombudsman wouldn't tell us how many retailers had signed up when we asked; it just said it will continue its work to encourage retailers to sign up.
On how shoppers would know whether the retailer they're complaining about is part of the scheme, the Ombudsman told us "it will be in touch with each consumer to keep them advised of the status of their case and let them know whether the retailers will engage with it."
However, the major benefit of the scheme is that it's legally binding on the retailer. This means the retailer has to follow the Ombudsman's decision, but that if you – as the consumer – are unhappy with the Ombudsman's decision, you can still take the complaint to court.
So how do I complain about a retailer to the scheme?
A complaint first has to be raised with the retailer and it must be given a chance to respond before the complaint can then be taken to the Ombudsman Services. No timeframe has been given on how long a retailer can take to respond or how long consumers have to lodge their complaint.
To submit a complaint – it's free – call 0333 300 1620, or complete the Ombudsman's online complaint form. A team of investigation officers and Ombudsman (it has 10) will then look at the complaint.
It has the power to tell the retailer to refund a customer, and it can order a retailer to award compensation.
'It's important consumers have somewhere to turn to'
Lewis Shand Smith, chief ombudsman, says: "We've built a great deal of expertise in understanding consumer complaints and how to resolve them which we believe we can offer to consumers with any issues with the retail sector.
"As our research shows, complaints are at the highest-ever level, and this is an important time to ensure that consumers have somewhere to turn. We believe this can only be a good thing, not just for consumers but forward-thinking companies that value their brand and reputation."