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How to buy goods through the mail


The mail order, or "direct marketing", business has grown dramatically in the last few years. Now in many cases you do not need to leave your home to buy goods. With the growth of the Internet, this industry will only continue to expand (see How to protect yourself when buying on the Internet).

There are obvious disadvantages with buying goods by mail, but these can be minimised by finding out certain facts before you enter into an agreement. Further, if you are buying from a New Zealand supplier you will be covered by this country's consumer-protection laws just as if you had bought the goods in a shop (see below).

Things to find out before entering into an agreement

Before entering into any agreement to buy goods through the mail, you should find out certain facts:

  • the identity and location of the seller (it is unwise to enter into an agreement when the only address given is a PO Box number)
  • any delivery costs
  • the time it will take for the goods to be delivered
  • the procedure for returning the goods if they are defective
  • whether there is a "cooling off" period – that is, a period during which you can change your mind about buying the goods
  • how long you are bound by the agreement – for example, if you are buying a number of goods over a period of time
  • how you can cancel the agreement

What protection do I have if the goods are defective?

If the mail order company is in New Zealand, you will be protected by the CONSUMER GUARANTEES ACT 1993 against the goods being defective (see How to exercise your rights under the Consumer Guarantees Act). The Act requires goods to:

  • be of "acceptable quality" (which includes being fit for all purposes that they are normally used for, and being safe and durable)
  • be fit for any particular purpose that the seller has advertised the goods as being fit for
  • match the description of the goods given by the seller, as well as the samples or demonstration model shown

You have no protection under the Act if you buy from an overseas trader. However, you may be able to obtain assistance from consumer agencies in the supplier's home country. The NZ Ministry of Consumer Affairs gives advice and relevant links about this on its website at, "Shopping on the Internet".

If you return the goods to a New Zealand supplier because the goods are faulty or because they don't match the description given, your protection under the Act entitles you to claim from the supplier the cost of returning the goods.

What if I have paid for the goods, but the seller doesn't send them?

If you discover that your cheque has been cashed but you have not received the goods, you should immediately contact the seller. If its explanation is not satisfactory, you can contact the Commerce Commission and make a complaint under the FAIR TRADING ACT 1986 (see How to: Protection under the Fair Trading Act). It is also open to you to take your own legal action under that Act, in which case you should consult a lawyer.

You may also have a cause of action against the seller for breach of contract or fraud.

Cautionary notes
  • A lawyer will be able to advise you of your rights and possible courses of action if the seller does not live up to its side of the bargain. In particular you will need to obtain the services of a lawyer if you wish to take your own legal action under the FAIR TRADING ACT 1986 (rather than simply complaining to the Commerce Commission) or if you wish to bring a legal action on some other ground, such as breach of contract or fraud.
  • If you have a complaint against a mail-order supplier, you may also wish to contact the New Zealand Direct Marketing Association. If the seller is a member, it must operate under the Association's Code of Ethics.

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