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How to Resolve a Complaint with any Store or Retailer

Retail purchases—whether at a store, through an online retailer, a mail-order catalog, or by phone from a TV ad or infomercial—are the most common transactions we make. So it’s normal to have problems occasionally—and for retailers to be accustomed to handling them.

Obviously, most merchants understand that earning your goodwill is an ongoing process, and your lifetime value as a customer is worth considerably more than any single transaction. Everybody has heard the saying, “The customer is always right.” But most of us know from experience, between one store and another there can be a lot of variation in what that means when you’ve got a problem.

A store’s guiding principles, its management, and its sales and customer service staff all influence how your complaint will be treated. The other ingredient is You. The fact is, retailers are predisposed to want to satisfy you if they reasonably can. The way you present your problem can make a huge difference in deciding whether you get what you want or something less—or nothing at all. This How-to offers tips for resolving complaints with stores of all kinds, and shows how PeopleClaim's online dispute resolution system can help you get the results you're looking for.

Common Problems

  • Product not as advertised
  • Defective or damaged product
  • Poor value for money
  • Refusal to accept returns
  • Rude or unhelpful store personnel
  • Warranty or rebate hassles
  • “Bait-and-switch” advertising

Step One: Know your rights.

Your rights as a customer are established by federal and state legislation as well as case law. You can generally get information on the laws that apply to retail transactions through your state attorney general’s office or department of consumer protection. Typical rights include the following:

  • The right to a safe shopping environment
  • The right to expect items sold will be safe to own and use
  • The right to expect items sold will perform their intended functions
  • The right to expect items sold will perform adequately for a reasonable period of time
  • The right to be shown the store’s return policy before purchase
  • The right to return a defective product—regardless of store return policy
  • The right to rely on a store’s advertising—including availability of merchandise, prices and comparisons, promotion end dates, and other info that materially affects your shopping decisions
  • The right to a rain check (chance to buy at advertised price) if advertised item is out of stock
  • The right to redeem gift certificates, gift cards, and store credits after an indicated expiration date (most states).
  • The right to privacy regarding your checking and credit card account information

In addition, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) guarantees rights specific to certain retail channels:

  • The Mail Order Rule (applies to mail, phone, fax, TV, and online retailers) – Items purchased must be shipped within the time advertised; or, if not specified, no later than 30 days after your order, unless you have agreed to other terms.
  • The “Cooling-off Rule” (door-to-door sales) – You have three business days in which to cancel any purchase of $25 or more from a door-to-door sales agent.

For detailed information about customers’ rights in retail transactions contact your state attorney general’s office or department of consumer protection.

Remember, above all, the law of the competitive marketplace operates to your advantage as a shopper. Retail is extremely competitive and stores don't want to lose your (or your friends') business. As you'll see below, PeopleClaim offers powerful tools for letting the store know you're unhappy, including posting unresolved claims on the Web, where your complaint can be viewed, commented on, voted for, and circulated via Facebook and other social media.

Next: Tell the store about your problem.

Most customer complaints are resolved matter-of-factly by the merchant. It’s a daily part of their business. So bringing your problem to the store’s attention is an essential step: if you don’t give the seller a chance to make it right first, you’ll get less sympathy during any subsequent resolution attempts. (FYI: government agencies and dispute resolution services usually insist you take up your problem with the other party before asking for assistance.) Tip: Unless your problem is plainly a policy matter, follow the store’s decision-making hierarchy bottom-to-top: cashier or customer service; then supervisor; then store manager. In many cases your complaint will be taken care of at the first level, but be prepared to move up the chain if necessary. For many stores there’s a fourth level, “Corporate,” if you need it. (Most store managers would rather take care of you than have your complaint make noise at corporate headquarters.)

Make contact in person, by phone, and/or in writing. A written complaint is good because it establishes a tangible record and tends to get more attention.

How PeopleClaim can help: PeopleClaim puts your complaint in writing, and can be useful anywhere along the store’s decision-making chain. If you've already taken your problem through the store’s chain of command but are not making progress, filing a PeopleClaim can add extra pressure and urgency.

Do’s and Don’ts


  • Keep a record. Save receipts, cancelled checks, warranties. (Saving product packaging the first weeks after purchase may help with returns.) Make a note of the salesperson’s name; write down names, dates, and details of phone calls; save all emails.
  • Understand store policies before you complain. Your case is strongest if your request is within your rights and consistent with store policy. If it’s not, you may still get what you want—but you’ll be asking for special treatment, which will be at the store’s discretion and depend on their goodwill.
  • Be pleasant and calm, but make it clear that you know your rights.
  • Start at the bottom (customer service or cashier) with most complaints, but ask to speak with a supervisor if you’re not making progress. Be polite: in many cases the person you’re talking with must follow instructions and has no leeway to decide anything not in the standard script.
  • Be specific about what you want (e.g., refund, repair, replacement, etc.) and make your demands reasonable.
  • Apply pressure tactfully. It may help you, for example, to mention the words “chargeback” as an option if your purchase was by credit card. Mail order and Web retailers are especially sensitive to chargebacks. As with everything else in the resolution process, be matter-of-fact about this, not emotional.
  • Set a deadline for resolution.
  • Keep your mind open: you may be offered something you hadn’t considered, and it may suit your purposes.
  • Put your complaint in writing. This gets attention, establishes a record, communicates your side of the story. Proofread before sending.

How PeopleClaim can help:PeopleClaim's online process helps you state your complaint and assemble all relevant facts: you can attach text documents or photos, and even have the system make a timeline for you.

PeopleClaim - Creating a timeline
Above: Creating a timeline


  • Do not exaggerate. Stick to the facts. Untrue statements weaken your position. Inflated claims about how much you spend at the store won’t cut any ice with a customer service rep. Tip: “I’ll never shop here again!” is never the right thing to say: if the store takes you at your word you’ve left them no reason to try to earn your continued business.
  • Do not bully sales clerks or cashiers. Keep your cool. Never use inflammatory words like "liar," "crook," or “cheat.” Remember, regardless of rights and policies there is always a human involved. Insult the people you need to persuade and you’ve lost any benefit of the doubt they might have applied in dealing with your problem.
  • Do not threaten. Especially, don’t threaten legal action unless you’re serious. Tip: There are businesses that will use a consumer’s idle threat of a lawsuit to close off possible involvement by the Better Business Bureau: the BBB will not file a report of the complaint if litigation is being planned by either side.
  • Don’t take No for an answer. If you’re not satisfied with the response you’re getting, keep moving your complaint up the ladder until it reaches a decision maker. Tip: Complaints filed through PeopleClaim get through to the right people, and the system offers powerful incentives for resolving your problem. See below.

Add some extra oomph to your complaint

Choosing these options when you file your complaint with PeopleClaim gets store management’s attention and lets them know you’re serious:

  • Make it public. PeopleClaim’s public posting option lets you set a deadline and have your complaint post on the Internet if the store does not resolve it to your satisfaction.
    Note: your personal information is kept private.
  • Copy your claim to relevant government regulators, independent watchdogs, and media. This option tells the other party your case could escalate if it’s not resolved, and it makes relevant agencies aware of you. Note: Filing a claim through a government agency will require a separate process, which you'll need to initiate on your own if you're not contacted by the agency directly.
  • Invite a free consultation from lawyers through PeopleClaim. (This is voluntary, and any further engagement would be between you and the lawyer. PeopleClaim does not participate in any fees you may agree to.)
  • Talk with others about your complaint. Share information and ideas with people who have had similar problems with this store or another store. If your claim posts allow viewers to comment on your complaint and show their support for your side. Alert your Facebook friends via PeopleClaim so they can add their voices to your cause. You can do these things through the PeopleClaim system. When people get together around the same complaint it’s a step forward for you, and a step any merchant will want to avoid.

If the other party doesn’t settle with you by your deadline, these incentives continue to work after the posting date to get your problem resolved.

PeopleClaim - Find out who else is having the same problem you are
Above: Find out who else is having the same problem you are.

Looking ahead: Before you shop

Almost everyone’s had a shopping experience that’s left them wishing they’d never walked through the door (or opened the catalog, or visited the website). So when you’re considering doing business with a retailer you’ve never used before, it can pay to first do a quick search online for others’ experiences. Does the store have a reputation? A good one, or not so good? Posted complaints filed through PeopleClaim generally show up near the top of search engine results for a retailer’s name—or you can search our database of unresolved complaints. It’s always good to know what you might be getting into, and avoid it if it doesn’t feel right. Fortunately, whatever you’re shopping for, you can almost always find it somewhere else.

Also— suppose you decide to go ahead and try a store even though your research uncovers problems. If you end up needing to make a complaint of your own, you have excellent ammunition. If you can show, for example, that others have had similar complaints and it’s a recurring pattern, the store will be in a position where they must acknowledge the problem, which means you’ve proven your point and the discussion can move toward resolution.

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