At this time of year, I get more reader queries (and complaints) about vouchers than almost anything else.
Lacking almost any legislation to protect consumers, vouchers are a contentious topic, especially if you run into problems.
While they might look like the perfect Christmas gift, things like expiry dates and lack of refunds and exchange policies can annoy people.
Add to that the alarming statistic from the Competition & Consumer Protection Commission that 48pc of all vouchers remain unused (due to being forgotten about, not used in time or lost) you have to wonder whether it makes a worthwhile gift at all.
This week I'm looking at the things to watch out for if you're buying or receiving a voucher. Also, which companies are good and bad at looking after their customers when it comes to vouchers.
Types of vouchers
Gift vouchers are traditionally paper-based mediums of exchange. If they get lost or mislaid, there is rarely any comeback for the consumer. You must 'prove' you had it, and this can be very difficult, even with standard proofs of purchase such as receipts and bank statements.
It's very often up to the retailer whether to reissue the voucher or not. Gift cards are plastic, credit-card type vouchers. While they have more protection, because they are often issued to a specific person and, therefore, can be replaced if lost, there is often a hefty charge for it. Blanchardstown Town Centre charges €7.50, for instance!
Vouchers can be for one shop, a chain or a centre with multiple outlets.
Check that it will be accepted first, as some chain stores are actually individual franchises and may not take another's voucher.
Consumer Rights Consumers have few rights when it comes to vouchers, unless expressly indicated on the card itself. You don't, for instance, have a right to any change if you don't use the full value - retailers can opt to give you replacement vouchers instead. They don't have to accept vouchers as part payment towards items either and of course, they can limit the terms of their use and value.
Nothing annoys customers more than expiry dates on vouchers. Given the company has already received the money, it is outrageous that they would then slap on a use-by date. The worst offenders are big organisations and shopping centres, while local businesses and traders are the best, as they understand the value of goodwill.
The law doesn't force retailers to put the expiry dates on vouchers; it might be in small print on their website instead, so you may need to ask if one applies.
Fees and Charges Why on earth you should pay to buy a voucher is anybody's guess, but it's becoming more common. The One-4-All voucher costs €2 from An Post. A Me2You.ie voucher is the same price. Charging someone for not using the voucher is even more insidious, yet many retailers do this - calling it an "Inactive Balance fee".
It means once you go over 12 months, you're punished with your card deducted every month for non use. In Dundrum Town Centre, for example, it's €3 per month! All in all, take care and ask lots of questions before buying the 'ideal' gift.