“The harm can be significant”: Caravan suppliers put on notice by ACCC amid skyrocketing complaints

Caravan

Source: Pexels/Matt Hardy

It’s a $23 billion industry but 80% of caravan owners say they’re having big problems — that’s according to the consumer watchdog’s new report released yesterday that delves into the poor treatment of caravan customers at the hands of suppliers.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) spoke to 2270 caravan owners and found four in five had experienced widespread consumer guarantee failures, misrepresentations by caravan suppliers, and unexpected delays in the delivery and repair of caravans.

The ACCC added that the number of complaints it was receiving was on the up and up, with more than 1300 reports over the past five years.

It comes as the caravan industry surges in popularity in Australia amid a backdrop of border closures, and more recently, travel chaos at airports.

Last year 50.6 million nights were spent in RVs, a 23% increase from the previous year, and 12.6 million RV trips were taken, a 19% increase from the previous year, according to the Caravan Camping Industry Association.

Chief marketing officer Alastair McCausland says Camplify has seen many first-time road trippers during the pandemic, while a quarter of bookings are return travellers.

“A road trip is also a more cost-effective and reliable option for Aussies to go on holiday. With the chaos at most airports and increased costs for accommodation, hire cars and meals, a Camplify holiday is still one of the most reliable and cost-effective holiday options out there,” he said.

But the van-life dream can quickly be extinguished by problems on or off the road.

The sale of caravans is bound under Australian Consumer Law, which stipulates that if a caravan does not meet a consumer guarantee — like poor quality or an inaccurate description — then a customer is entitled to a repair, replacement or indeed a refund from the person who sold it.

The scope of the remedy is dependent on the issue, the ACCC continues. A minor problem can be fixed with a repair, for instance, though if the supplier is not willing to repair it, a refund or replacement is due under law.

If, however, the issue is major (or a series of minor issues stacking up) then the consumer is entitled to a full refund or replacement.

“A caravan can represent a significant financial and emotional investment,” ACCC deputy chair Delia Rickard said.

“Some people save for years in anticipation of purchasing and travelling in a caravan. If something goes wrong the harm can be significant.”

But the watchdog has heard from many customers who say suppliers refused to remedy caravan failures, or provided remedies that didn’t solve the problem — and that’s a big problem.

“We are very concerned by these reported failures to comply with obligations under the Australian Consumer Law, and the impact that these failures have on consumers who have purchased a caravan which develops a fault,” Rickard said.

“It is the ACCC’s view that it is reasonable to expect a new caravan won’t develop a major fault within the first several years of use.

“If your caravan has a major or minor consumer guarantee failure you may be entitled to a remedy even if the warranty provided by the business has expired,” Rickard added.

It comes as caravan retailer Jayco was ordered to pay $75,000 in May 2021 for making a false or misleading representation to a consumer about their consumer guarantee rights.

In November 2020, the Federal Court dismissed ACCC allegations that Jayco had acted unconscionably towards four customers by denying them the right to refunds or replacements for their defective caravans.

But the court did find Jayco had misled one customer by telling them they were only entitled to a repair, not a refund or replacement.

In this week’s report, the ACCC said it has also received complaints about misrepresentations of a caravan’s performance capabilities and tow-weight, which poses a “grave safety implications”, she continued.

“The ACCC will investigate and take enforcement action against suppliers and manufacturers we believe may have misled consumers.”

Suppliers are also legally entitled to claim the costs from their manufacturer if the issue is a fault caused during a caravan’s construction, the watchdog added, though many refuse to.

In response to an ACCC survey, 40% of caravan suppliers reported that a manufacturer had declined to reimburse them for providing a remedy to a consumer, and many were too intimidated to take the issue further.

“While a supplier can take legal action against a manufacturer to recover costs, the ACCC’s survey of suppliers found some were reluctant to take this step due to fear of retribution,” Rickard said.

“We are very concerned by reports that retailers are unable to obtain the reimbursement they are entitled to for providing remedies to consumers.”

And if suppliers are unable to deliver new caravans, or repair existing ones, due to the supply chain shortage, they have an obligation to be upfront with customers about the accurate timeframe.

The ACCC received 2270 relevant consumer responses and 67 supplier responses, while also speaking to industry associations and receiving feedback through industry forums.

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