Buying a cheap TV online can be a false economy
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Buying a cheap TV online can be a false economy

Most of us love a bargain, but sometimes it’s more trouble than it’s worth.

I was reminded of that recently when we bought two new televisions through a seller on eBay.

We’d gone many years without an actual television set because we don’t watch much TV and when we do, it’s usually online through a computer. We decided to bite the bullet when our seven-year-olds couldn’t contain their excitement during a particularly exciting Pokemon battle, and accidentally the laptop went flying through the air.

If you have excitable children, Pokemon is better watched on a real TV set than a laptop.

If you have excitable children, Pokemon is better watched on a real TV set than a laptop.

Photo: Pokemon

We did our research and settled on a smart TV set of a moderate size with a price tag of about $500. We found a good deal on eBay and, in a burst of efficiency, ordered a second one for a relative who said she needed a spare set for her spare room.

It took a while for the seller to organise delivery and then they only delivered one of the televisions. We had to wait around another week or so for the second TV.

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Installing the first TV set was relatively straightforward. The kids love the big, red Netflix button in the middle of the remote and, even though the TV isn’t password-protected like a laptop or iPad, they continue to be compliant with our limits on screen time.

I'm enjoying it too, though I’m frustrated I can’t figure out how to access Freeview for Australian free-to-air channels, even though the manufacturer’s website states this is a feature of the model. Perhaps we unwittingly bought a parallel import, where the retailer has sourced product from overseas in order to be able to offer a lower price. Hopefully that won't cause us any issues down the track if we need to claim on the manufacturer's warranty.

The main problem came a few days after the delivery of the second TV, when we opened up the box, only to find the screen was smashed. By this point it was already a few weeks after we’d placed the order.

We contacted the seller straight away. At first they were receptive and it seemed they were going to fix the problem. But they were a little slow at responding to messages and then they suddenly informed us that we were outside the 30-day window to raise an eBay dispute.

eBay is a platform rather than a retailer.

eBay is a platform rather than a retailer.

Photo: Paul Sakuma / AP

We pointed out that we’d started this process within the 30 days but the seller stopped communicating. Time went by, we kept trying to contact the seller, then we reached out to eBay.

We contacted eBay customer support through web chat, and an agent told us that because it was outside the 30-day window, they couldn’t help either. It didn’t matter that we’d started talking to the seller straight away, nor that all those messages were on the eBay platform.

But she did have one good suggestion, which was to raise a dispute with PayPal. It seems funny since eBay no longer owns PayPal, but there you go.

Under PayPal’s rules, the customer has 90 rather than 30 days to raise a dispute. We were still inside this window. The agent pointed out that it was a way to get the seller’s attention and prompt them to do the right thing.

And so it was. We raised the dispute with PayPal, and bingo! Almost the next day, the seller contacted us to arrange a refund and to pick up the smashed television. By this stage it had been sitting in a box in our spare room for more than two months.

A happy ending! But it really shouldn’t be so hard.

When I first shared the story on social media, Choice chief executive Alan Kirkland responded to me, expressing his disappointment at eBay passing the buck.

“Not good enough, I say,” Kirkland wrote on Twitter. “eBay needs to take some responsibility for transactions on its platform.”

I agree, especially given eBay encourages buyers to do everything they can to settle disputes directly with sellers, before raising a formal complaint. My experience suggests the problem is, if you give a seller the benefit of the doubt for too long, you’re on your own.

I’ve learned my lesson. I’ll be making any future purchases of appliances from reputable retailers. I don’t care about saving a bit of money, even $100 or so. My time is more valuable.

If we’d bought the television from, say, Harvey Norman or The Good Guys, or even a small electronics shop with a physical presence and track record, I could have delivered the broken set to a shop and stood there until they solved the problem. I can't imagine it would drag on long.

Online-only retailers can be fine too, if they're a reasonable size and standing and care about their reputation. Over the years I’ve bought a dishwasher, vacuum cleaner and most recently a washing machine through Appliances Online, and I've always been able to solve problems.

You might have thought eBay was a “reputable retailer”. But while eBay is a big brand, technically it’s the platform not the retailer. It bills itself as the "world's online marketplace".

Is that what you want when you're buying expensive electronics? It seems to me that buying a television from a small seller on eBay is a bit like going down to Paddy’s Market in Sydney or Queen Victoria Market in Melbourne to buy a TV. No disrespect to markets, and I’m sure they have quality control procedures, but if merchants can be here today and gone tomorrow it makes it that much harder to enforce your rights.

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Now of course, many big retailers use eBay as a platform too - The Good Guys, Bing Lee, Appliances Online are all there - but that's beside the point. There are plenty of minnows and while most of them provide good service most of the time, if things go wrong you need eBay to back you up.

That's what eBay's 30-day Money Back Guarantee is designed to do - it was introduced in Australia in 2014 and the company says it has invested millions in it.

EBay Australia managing director Tim Mackinnon told me that as a result of my experience, he would review the procedures around the timing of claims to provide flexibility where a customer has contacted the seller to resolve the issue within 30 days. So that's progress.

Australian consumer law offers a great deal of protection but sometimes it’s hard to enforce your rights. A retailer that cares about its brand will make that easier for you.

In case you’re wondering, our laptop survived the Pokemon incident.

Caitlin Fitzsimmons is the editor of Money. Find her on Facebook and Twitter.

Caitlin Fitzsimmons edits the Money section for SMH and The Age and writes columns about life, money and work. She is based in our Sydney newsroom.