Online stores based in China and the US are becoming increasingly popular with UK shoppers. But is it worth hunting for bargains from abroad, or will it end up costing you more?
As the high street stores become chock-a-block with shoppers and the temperature plummets, it's not hard to see the appeal of online shopping.
And it's not just UK sites that are drawing us in – there are great deals to be found across the board on websites based outside of the UK, from tech to clothing.
Almost one in seven shoppers make online purchases from overseas every week, according to delivery company Whistl.
With price considered the most important factor for online shoppers, it’s unsurprising that many of us are trawling the internet for bargains.
Whistl's research shows that 47% of British women had bought something from China in 2018, which tops the list with the US as our joint-favourite foreign countries to buy from.
But is it really worth it?
We look at everything from security to your consumer rights, and explain why anyone looking to bag a bargain Christmas present might already be too late given the lengthy delivery times.
Watch out for 'hidden' costs
At first glance, it might be cheaper to buy from abroad, but there are various costs that you should factor in before deciding to go ahead with your purchase.
Even if the price of the item looks like it’ll make you a big saving, make sure that you’re aware of the postage costs.
In recent years international postage prices have rocketed, particularly in the US, so make sure you know how much it’ll come to before heading to the checkout.
Similarly, a lot of sites advertise free delivery, but it’s important to check that it’s applicable to the UK and not just the country where the site is based.
VAT & customs duties
Any item coming into the UK from abroad will be checked, and this is where a handling charge, VAT and customs duties may be snuck onto the amount that you have to pay.
Generally speaking, you shouldn’t have to pay any extra for ordering items within the European Union.
VAT will be added onto anything from a non-EU country at a rate of 20% if it is worth more than £15.
This amount also includes the price of any packaging and insurance for the product.
Customs duty will be added to any items shipped from outside of the EU if they are valued at £135 or more.
All of these charges vary dependent on the item and the country it is coming from.
Sellers may or may not cover these costs, so contact the merchant if you are unsure about what you'll be expected to pay.
Another factor that can affect how much you pay is fluctuating exchange rates.
It’s important to remember that it isn’t the rate on the day of purchase that’s important, but rather the rate on the day that the money is taken from your account.
Martyn James, head of media at complaints website Resolver, recommends contacting the merchant to see if you can pay in the native currency straight away to avoid any unexpected price changes.
Knowing if your bank charges conversion fees is also handy in terms of calculating whether the price difference makes it worth ordering from abroad.
Best way to pay
There’s a number of ways to pay for your online goods, and some are definitely better than others.
James’ main tip: don’t ever pay by bank transfer.
“It sounds simple, but there are still lots of people who might fall for paying by bank transfer.
"Scammers often lure people into leaving the website and doing a bank transfer by offering cheaper deals, but once that money’s gone, you’re not getting it back.”
Credit cards, debit cards and PayPal are the most commonly used forms of payment and they all offer different layers of protection that should help you out if you are ripped off.
With credit cards, Section 75 of the Consumer Credit Act offers you protection almost across the board.
“It sounds a bit legalistic,” explains James, “but Section 75 of the Consumer Credit Act can help you get your cash back.”
The Act is the safety net that allows you to claim refunds through your credit card provider if something goes wrong.
This is particularly useful in terms of online shopping because if goods don’t turn up, or aren’t what you expected when they do, you should be able to get the money back from your credit card company.
However, there are some loopholes to watch out for.
Firstly, Section 75 only applies to items costing between £100 and £30,000, so anything outside of that bracket won't be covered.
The law is also quite specific in that buyers have to have bought their item directly rather than through a third party.
This means that there is a lot of wiggle room for credit companies if you want to make a claim on purchases made through marketplaces such as Etsy or Alibaba, which host lots of different sellers.
“It’s a law that’s open to interpretation,” says James, “which means that some credit card companies might give you your money back whilst others could dispute it.”
These sites do have their own complaints systems however and as they are strictly regulated, they may be a safer bet than individual retailers.
If you choose to pay with a debit card Section 75 isn’t applicable, but you can ask your bank about chargeback.
Your provider should agree to compensate you if items don't turn up or they aren't what they should be, but again this is down to the provider's discretion.
PayPal has its own Buyer Protection in place, meaning that you should be reimbursed if an item doesn’t match its description or never arrives.
In order to be covered by Buyer Protection, your PayPal account needs to be in good standing and you need to apply within 180 days of the purchase being made.
How to stay safe
Fraudsters are becoming more adept at making their websites look genuine, which means there is always the risk that the site that you are buying from is not legitimate, said James.
To make sure that a website is genuine, you should always do a bit of research before heading to the checkout.
Don’t be fooled by convincing-looking logos as they’re easily forged, but dubious domain names and a lack of contact information can be signs that you’re being had.
Can I get a refund when shopping from abroad?
Yes and no. Refund policies vary from site to site, so it is always important to read up on individual policies before committing to a purchase.
The Consumer Rights Act covers most European countries, so you should be able to return an item if you’re unhappy, but again it does vary depending on the country.
“In theory shopping online from different countries doesn’t come with the same protection.
"EU countries are generally well protected but there isn’t an ombudsman in place to help you out if things go wrong,” says James.
Outside of Europe, it becomes more complicated.
“In the US, consumer rights vary on a state-by-state basis, whilst countries like China are completely different in terms of how they operate.
"That said, sites like Alibaba are established marketplaces, which means that they have a refund system in place if you aren’t happy with something.”
So is it worth doing before Christmas?
There are some great deals to be found but, as with any kind of shopping, you have to be savvy about it.
James says it’s as important to know when something is going to arrive as what it is.
If you are online shopping from foreign retailers in the run-up to Christmas have a look at the estimated delivery date, but remember that it’s an estimate.
“Get in touch with the seller to confirm in writing when the item will arrive because then if it doesn’t arrive in time, you have a much better chance of getting a refund.
“Also have a backup plan,” says James.
“Don’t make the big present the one that comes from the US unless you know your friends or family won’t mind if it isn’t there on the big day.”
Looking to buy fewer gifts this Christmas? Take a look at our article on how re-gifting can save you money and makes for a better present than something new.
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