The consumer group Which? is calling on the government and businesses to make the new costs of buying from EU-based retailers clear and increase the public’s awareness of these changes so consumers are not left with unexpected fees or scammed into paying unnecessary charges.
For many consumers, import charges and confusing returns policies have made shopping with EU retailers after Brexit much more difficult than it used to be.
According to a Which? survey of more than 2,000 members of the public, two in five (42%) people who ordered products online between the end of the Brexit transition period on 1 January and 16 February experienced some issues.
While delays were the most common issue cited by those who ordered products online – with one in four people (24%) experiencing delays – the consumer champion’s research revealed that one in ten people (11%) have been asked to pay additional handling or delivery fees.
Which?’s survey showed the average charge was £41, with some people paying up to £300.
A lack of clear, accessible and well signposted information on how online shopping has been affected since the end of the Brexit transition period means many of these new charges and processes haven’t been communicated clearly and have come as a shock to consumers.
Which? is calling on the government and businesses to make these new costs clear to consumers so they are not left out of pocket.
The government must work to make the processes for how these costs are charged as simple as possible for both businesses and consumers. Businesses must also be upfront about whether the item is being imported from outside the EU and the charges consumers will have to pay if this is the case.
Which? has received multiple queries from consumers on this issue and has regularly published the most up to date information available on the charges consumers can expect when shopping from the EU.
Currently, UK shoppers are charged VAT at 20 per cent, which is applied to most goods. If the total cost of the order is more than £135 or a gift is over £39, VAT is often collected at point of delivery.
Online shoppers who buy items from the EU which originate from further afield – for example, from a seller based in China on an EU platform – and cost more than £135 will also have to pay additional customs duties. This is because the product originates from outside the EU, so the zero-tariff preference between the UK and EU does not apply.
The rules differ for shoppers in Northern Ireland due to its unique position of remaining within the EU’s Single Market, meaning it remains aligned with EU VAT rules for goods.
UK consumers can also be charged additional delivery fees for items from the EU. Each courier has a different policy on what they charge and how they ask you to pay.
Simon Potthast, a musician and producer, ordered a software and hardware package costing £603 from music production company Ableton for work. He then got an email from UPS when the parcel reached the UK port of entry saying there were import fees due for £112.55.
Ableton, who are based in Germany, added a message to the checkout on their website on 16th February 2021 warning that their physical products do not include VAT for UK consumers and that there may be a small paperwork fee on delivery. These fees would also apply to products brought from other companies in the EU.
However, when Simon placed his order on 18th March, he didn’t realise his order was being shipped from Germany or that he would incur additional charges.
He said: “I’ll be more careful now. If I’d known about the charges I would have found a UK distributor for the items so all the charges would have been included when I paid.”
There is also a risk that without clarity around the charges consumers should expect when shopping from the EU, people could be misled or scammed into paying extra costs.
A recent surge in ‘Royal Mail’ scam texts claiming that a parcel is being held due to an unpaid shipping fee shows that fraudsters are taking advantage of consumers’ uncertainty over post-Brexit import charges.
If in any doubt over texts or emails from courier services, consumers should not enter any personal details and should contact the delivery firm directly to confirm if it is genuine. Suspicious texts or emails can be reported to the courier and the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC).
Some shoppers have also experienced difficulties when returning items to the EU. Which?’s research found an overwhelming nine in ten (87%) people who have returned items between 1 January and 16 February have experienced issues such as delays, unexpected paperwork or extra charges.
To make a return to the EU, consumers now need to complete a customs declaration form and to include the item’s description, weight and value. The customs charge is paid for by the recipient upon delivery.
However, this new process has not been made clear by all retailers, leaving some consumers unsure of how to send items back.
Daniele from Worthing had a frustrating experience with Footlocker EU, based in the Netherlands, after trying to return a pair of trainers that were initially delayed at customs.
UPS told him to fill out a returns form but he couldn’t find one on Footlocker’s website. He found a form on UPS’ website but was still unclear how to fill it out.
Eventually, he received help from UPS, but Daniele was disappointed with Footlocker’s service: “Retailers really need to have something in place to assist us – did I really need to go through all of this just to return something?”
Brexit has affected many aspects of how UK consumers interact with EU merchants. For example, if consumers have an issue with a product bought from an EU-based business – because it’s faulty or the pricing was misleading – they are very unlikely to be able to enforce their consumer rights through the UK courts as was previously the case. They may need to pursue the issue with consumer protection authorities or through the courts in the country where the business is based.
UK authorities will also no longer be able to take part in coordinated enforcement activities against companies who breach the law in multiple markets or have access to the same level of intelligence from the EU.
In Which?’s Beyond the UK-EU Trade and Cooperation Agreement: Priorities for consumers paper, the consumer champion details what the Trade and Cooperation Agreement means for UK consumers in a number of key areas and how the government should prioritise consumer interests.
Adam French, Which? Consumer Rights Expert said:
“Many consumers across the UK could have been surprised to learn how often they buy from EU based retailers. After Brexit, many were caught off-guard by the new delivery charges and returns policies for parcels from the EU – and left footing unexpected bills.
“Which? is calling on the government to make these charges clear for consumers so they are not surprised by the costs or, more concerningly, misled or scammed into paying extra charges. Businesses must also be up front about any extra charges so consumers can continue to shop across the border without any unnecessary complications.”