We often overuse the word “unprecedented” but in this COVID era, it really fits. We’re seeing this in our work at the Better Business Bureau in the ways businesses and customers are trying to figure things out. It’s challenging, because we’re all making decisions based on the best information we have today, and that information may be outdated tomorrow.

This is raising a lot of questions, particularly when it comes to refunds, returns, and cancellations. There are more questions than definitive answers right now (especially if a business has temporarily closed, and isn’t able to answer at all).

If you purchased a product that you need to return before a specific time, and the business is shut down, will it extend that return period? If you signed up for a class or event, should you be refunded now, or wait for it to be rescheduled? What if it is rescheduled and you can’t accommodate the revised date? What if a product delivery is cancelled?

Some businesses won’t make it through this. Even with government support programs, some businesses won’t recover. And if you’re holding a credit (a product to return, or a promise of future credit against a purchase) with a company that files for bankruptcy, you’re an unsecured creditor. Your place in line is behind all the secured creditors (banks, suppliers, anyone with security). It’s unlikely there’ll be anything left for you once they’re paid.

But most companies will get through this. So be understanding and patient. No business was, or could have been, prepared for this lockdown. When the dust settles, most will want to resolve any issues and avoid disappointing or alienating their customers.

If you’re concerned about a purchase you’ve made, there are a few things you can do to lessen your risk.

  • Keep all your paperwork. Hang on to receipts, warranties, contracts—anything that documents your purchase.
  • Read terms and conditions carefully. Businesses may choose to go above and beyond what was originally agreed to, but it’s helpful to know what is committed in writing.
  • Stay in touch. If the business is closed temporarily and you can’t reach them by phone, keep an eye on their website and social media feeds. Many businesses are using those channels to communicate with their customers about their status and plans.
  • Consider alternatives. Some companies simply may not be able to offer exactly what you want. Whether it’s a slightly different product, or a different date for a class or event, consider what you’re able and willing to accept.
  • Be nice. As with any situation, you’ll have a better chance of getting what you want if you don’t go in with both barrels blazing. When you do get in contact with the business, ask for what you want rather than demanding it.

Most businesses will work with you to honour the commitments and promises they’ve made, and stand behind any products or services that they offer. So hang tight, give them a bit of time to regroup, and when things do start getting back to normal, be kind.

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