Tuesday Tips: Buying International

You've searched long and hard for that perfect rug for your dining room only to find that it's on a Web site based in Sweden. The shipping charges are bound to be more than your mortgage, and how would you return the thing if that shade of green just doesn't work? So you bag the whole idea, putting your search back at square one.

Hillary Mendelsohn, author of "The Purple Book: The Definitive Guide to Exceptional Online Shopping," says buying from non-U.S. Web sites doesn't have to be so traumatic. Here are her tips for making it work:

Tip #1: Look for clues that the vendor regularly takes international orders. It's a good sign if their shipping and return policies are clearly stated in English.

Tip #2: After finding the item you want, take a good, hard look at the vendor's shipping rates. Expect to pay 10-15 percent more in shipping fees than you normally would with a U.S.-based vendor, for normal-sized items. Vendors tend to charge whatever they want to ship larger items like furniture, says Mendelsohn. You'll also likely pay a duty for bigger pieces. Don't be surprised if you find sites that don't charge for shipping. Those vendors are trying to build up their international business. You will, however, pay an international surcharge known as value added tax or VAT. This is a fee paid to take goods out of Europe and is usually automatically added to your bill by the vendor, says Mendelsohn.

Tip #3: Look for alternative contact information such as a phone number, especially if you're buying a large item or an expensive one. Mendelsohn says she always calls the vendor when she's ordered big-ticket items, even though it goes against the convenience of online shopping. But she says it's a good way to find out how and when they're shipping your purchase. And don't worry, you won't have to learn French before picking up the phone. Most sites that regularly ship overseas will have an English speaker at the customer service desk.

Tip #4: Mendelsohn says think long and hard before making an international purchase because making a return could set you back. International shipping is expensive and if you return something you'll have to suck up that shipping fee.

Tip #5: Many sites will automatically tell you your total bill in U.S. dollars but if not, check out the conversion calculator at XE.com. And figure out the shipping fees and any other charges while you're there.

Tip #6: Always use a credit card to pay for items anywhere on the Internet, whether it be from a U.S.-based company or one based overseas. Credit cards, rather than debit cards or checks, offer fraud protection in case there's an issue. "International sites that are good at taking international orders all take American credit cards," says Mendelsohn. "If they don't, then you shouldn't buy from them."

Tip #7: If you're buying art or antiques, make sure they have a way to prove the authenticity of the item. "If they're good, they'll stand behind their authenticity," Mendelsohn adds.

Mendelsohn's international favorites:

Adin: Based in Belgium, the site sells antique jewelry.
Canfora: Based on Italy's Isle of Capri, the site sells beaded sandals.
MyCatwalk: This Australian site sells high-end designer clothes. Mendelsohn says there's nothing else like it online.
Net-a-Porter: This U.K.-based site also sells high-end fashion.
Ancient Art: Another U.K.-based site, Ancient Art sells ancient artifacts like handwritten pages from a medieval Bible.
Comtesse du Barry: This French site sells gourmet food, like Russian caviar.
BuyLebanese.com: This site sells Lebanese food and products from its store in Beirut.

Do you buy from international Web sites? If so, what do you buy? If not, what has held you back from buying from international sites? Post a comment below.

By Tania Anderson |  February 26, 2008; 3:00 AM ET Tuesday Tips
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Comments

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I just made my first overseas online purchase from Amazon UK. The price of the item actually dropped in the shopping basket, as VAT was removed. VISA charged a 1% exchange fee. Now I'm waiting to see how long it takes to get here, and what the customs duties will be.

Posted by: random | February 26, 2008 9:55 AM

"You will, however, pay an international surcharge known as value added tax or VAT."

This is completely backwards, at least with respect to the UK. The VAT is a form of sales tax, wrapped into the listed price of an item. It is generally NOT applicable to purchases made outside the jurisdiction, and means the item costs somewhat LESS than the initially displayed price. If you buy from Amazon UK, the VAT will be deducted before your final total is calculated.

(NOTE--I believe books are not subject to the VAT, so you won't see any savings if that's all you order. But if you're ordering CDs or other items that are subject to the VAT, then you'll get a markdown at checkout.)

If you are traveling to the UK, you can avoid paying VAT on items you have shipped directly home and can even (in theory) get a refund of the VAT if you fill out paperwork when you leave the country. It's enough of a hassle--and the companies that make it easier also take a cut of the refund--that you probably won't want to bother on purchases less than fifty or sixty pounds. But it can be nice to get a bit back if you're making significant purchases abroad.

Posted by: Dirty Davey | February 26, 2008 1:14 PM

"You will, however, pay an international surcharge known as value added tax or VAT. This is a fee paid to take goods out of Europe and is usually automatically added to your bill by the vendor, says Mendelsohn."

Since when? I din't even pay VAT on most "souvenier" purchases while a tourist in France and Germany!

Posted by: Robert Anderson | March 4, 2008 10:55 AM

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