If Covid-19 cancels your wedding, choose postponement over a refund: consumer goods ombud

24 March 2020 - 06:00
By wendy knowler AND Wendy Knowler
Wedding planners and vendors are feeling the heat after countless postponements due to the coronavirus outbreak. Many are refusing to offer refunds.
Image: STOCK IMAGE Wedding planners and vendors are feeling the heat after countless postponements due to the coronavirus outbreak. Many are refusing to offer refunds.

We should be heading into South Africa’s second biggest wedding season, but for many of the thousands of engaged couples who’ve been forced to cancel their big day, the traditional vows are already being put to the test.

“For better for worse, richer for poorer, in sickness and in health … ”

The cost of a cancelled wedding - especially very shortly before those “I do’s” are said - is catastrophic for the couple and their guests, as well as all the wedding vendors.

In most cases, full payment has been made for the venue, flights, accommodation, catering, decor, hair, photographer and all the rest.

Legally, given the ban on public gatherings or more than 100 - which is very likely to drop to far less, very soon - consumers have a right to full refunds of what they’ve paid.

“Based on our interpretation of the spirit and intent of the Consumer Protection Act [CPA], consumers have a right to a full refund in these circumstances,” says consumer goods and services ombud Magauta Mphahlele.

“But if a postponement is possible, we urge consumers to take this option, rather than request a refund, to minimise the impact on suppliers who are also not at fault,” she said.

Sarah Desmarais, who has had to cancel her April 4 wedding, told TimesLIVE that large payments had been made in full to her wedding planner, including for decor costs, but she would not consider any refunds.

“We will not be able to refund any amount at this stage,” the wedding planner told the couple in an e-mail, “as we simply don’t have the funds to do this. We have had 23 postponed weddings, which has impacted us drastically.”

The gathering restriction, coupled with the serving of alcohol restriction and increasingly urgent calls for non-essential gatherings to be called off completely, has had a “brutal” impact on the wedding industry, says Cape Town-based live wedding painter Mary-Ann Wiggill.

“Wedding vendors are for the most part entrepreneurs and freelancers, running their businesses either solo or as small teams. Our businesses are ill-equipped for the mass onslaught of requests from couples to cancel their weddings or reschedule their dates,” she said.

Wedding vendor Facebook groups have been flooded with requests for advice on enforcing cancellation clauses in contracts - or what to do when a client wants to push ahead with their large wedding.

On their social platforms they are urging their clients to postpone, not cancel. For many, opening their e-mail inboxes has become a task they dread.

Stella Uys, a photographer based in Gauteng, is facing losses of more than R200,000 over the next few months.

“My bookings have been just about wiped out. I have only one wedding left - for mid-June - and if that gets cancelled that’s it, zero income,” she said.

Postponements carry their own challenges.

Eleven of Uys’s 2020 wedding bookings are now scheduled for 2021, so accommodating “Covid-19 weddings” next year means fewer available dates for 2021 weddings.

“I’m hoping for a lockdown as soon as possible. The sooner that happens, the sooner it will be over,” she said. "All mine are postponements - some live abroad and will only make their decision on April 14 ... After tonight, I really hope for a lockdown as soon as possible."

Cara Lee McLaughlin of Cape Town is both a wedding planner and a would-be bride who has cancelled her April 25 wedding, so she sees both sides of the issue.

“Most of my suppliers have been very good, allowing me to shift my date,” she said. “And all my clients have agreed to postpone their weddings to December or early next year.”

But she is aware that when asked for a refund, most vendors are refusing point-blank - even in part. “And if they allow a postponement, it’s for 12 months, and many are saying 2021 rates will then apply. So people will be asked to pay in,” she said.

“Others are trying to take advantage of the situation by telling people who are postponing to next year that they have to choose a weekday when they paid far higher rates for a weekend.”

Clearly that approach is not CPA compliant but enforcing one’s CPA rights in the coming months will no doubt be extremely challenging.

The consumer goods and services ombud’s office is inundated with cancellation-related complaints, and even if a consumer secures a decision in their favour, the ombud’s office does not have powers to make binding decisions.

If a supplier is not co-operative or the office can't help parties to amicably resolve the dispute, it has no choice but to terminate the process and advise the complainant to lodge a complaint with the National Consumer Commission, which rarely takes up individual cases.