Neil Rose reports on how owners of England and Man Utd shirts may get a refund
It came as no surprise to many who have shelled out for the latest bit of shiny polyester to learn in 2003 that the prices of some football shirts had been illegally fixed. After a three-year investigation, the Office of Fair Trading fined ten organisations – including the FA and Manchester United – a total of £18.6 million for ensuring that the cost of various England and United Umbro shirts stayed at around £40. These included the England kits worn at Euro 2000 and the 2002 World Cup, and United’s “reversible” centenary specials – replica shirts can now be bought at half the price or less. Umbro and JJB Sports – where Dave Whelan is executive director – took the brunt of the fines, although the amounts reduced a little on appeal (United’s to £1.5m).
Three years later, an advert from a London law firm in the December 2006 issue of WSC was the first sign that the estimated million fans who bought the shirts during specific periods were being encouraged to join an unprecedented legal action to reclaim the money they were overcharged.
The solicitors are acting for Which? (what used to be called the Consumers’ Association, which has been renamed after its magazine) and making use of a recent change in the law to try to bring JJB further to book in the little-known Competition Appeal Tribunal. United, Umbro and the FA swallowed their punishments two years before Which? was granted its new powers, meaning they have escaped action, but, because JJB kept on appealing (a process that has only just come to an unsuccessful end), the retailer remains in the firing line.
Until now, a representative organisation such as Which? has not been able to bring a legal action on behalf of a group of individuals. But that has changed because the European Union wants not just governments to be able to take on big companies guilty of anti-competitive behaviour. People would not go to all this effort just to reclaim £10 or £20 for themselves, but, multiply that a million times and allow someone with muscle to do it on their behalf, and suddenly it’s big money at stake.
If you bought an affected shirt and can prove it, then you can join the action. There is no financial risk in taking part and you will not have to turn up at court. Proof would ideally take the form of a receipt, but as the shirts in question were on sale at various times between April 2000 and August 2001, there is a good chance that your receipt is decomposing in a landfill site somewhere. Bank or credit-card statements showing payments may do the job, too, and Which? is hopeful that the tribunal will allow more unconventional evidence, such as photos of the shirt being worn. Even if you bought the shirt from another of the retailers that formed part of the cartel – AllSports, Blacks, JD Sports, Sports Soccer and United themselves – you are encouraged to register, as JJB could be forced to pay out for them as well.
The consumer group knows it will have a job persuading people to go to the effort for such a meagre return. It is appealing for them to sign up as much to send a message to retailers about ripping people off as anything else, while it is also considering a claim for “exemplary” damages, which are unusual under English law, but could penalise JJB further.
JJB continues to deny that it was involved in illegal price fixing and insists that its profit margin on football shirts is lower than any other product line and than other retailers’. Interestingly, “as a gesture of goodwill to our loyal customers”, it is also offering the same fans who can prove purchase the chance to claim a current England away shirt (which it is selling for just £13.49) and an England mug. Which? insists that taking up the deal does not stop people from joining its action, although that might be one for the lawyers to fight over in time.
There is not a football fan, or a relative of one, who has not at some point complained about the cost of replica shirts. Now, at last, there is a chance to get your own back.
More information on the campaign at Which?
From WSC 242 April 2007. What was happening this month