Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Wait a Minute Mr. Postman!

While this blog is a great place for me to vent, I also hope that some of the information I provide will be useful to Americans who have just moved to Canada or who are planning to move to Canada. This post should serve both purposes.

I’m kind of a mail-order junkie. I always have been. I started sending cash through the mail to order items from catalogs when I was only 12. (Yes, I know you’re not supposed to send cash through the mail, but what 12 year old has a check book or wants to ask her parents to write a check for silly bumper stickers, key chains, etc.?) My mother is obsessed with the QVC shopping channel, so my fascination with mail order must be in the genes. But, being more technically proficient than my mother, the Internet is my weapon of choice.

I even went though a period where I had, what I would call, an eBay addiction. There was a stretch of about two years where I was getting 2-3 packages in the mail each week. It was usually some worthless junk, but the thrill of winning an auction (shopping victoriously) and getting packages in the mail was irresistable. I did not go though a twelve-step program to overcome this addiction; it really was brought to an end by Sarah threatening to break up with me because of all the money I was spending

With that affliction behind me (well, sort of), I did also discover that you can save so much time by ordering things you really do need from the Internet. They are often easier to find and cheaper. For example, if I went shopping at the mall, I certainly wouldn’t find a Phoenix Coyotes snowglobe for sale. But I can find one for sale online in a matter of seconds. Likewise, I use a lot of athletic tape for my ankles when I play soccer and go through about two rolls a week. If I went to any store in town to buy a roll of tape, it would cost me about $3.50. Since I play soccer year-round, this cost adds up. I am able to buy a case of tape online with 32 rolls for $60.

So, I have become somewhat dependent on certain items arriving regularly for me though the mail. In Canada, this has been a constant frustration for many reasons.

First, most online retailers I patronize are in the United States. True, they will all ship to Canada, but remember that box of 32 rolls of tape I was talking about? It costs $10 for shipping within in the US. To ship to Canada--$40.

The second problem is tax. The Canadian government expects to receive sales tax for items purchased from abroad and brought to Canada. This includes items arriving through the mail.
I don’t have all the details, but what I have been told from various sources is that if an item purchased from abroad is listed as valued at less than $20 CDN on the customs form on the package, the government will not charge tax. I have also been told that if an item arrives from out of the country and is marked as a gift and is labelled as worth less than $60 CDN, the government will not charge tax.

These are things I wish I would have known a long time ago.

This past winter, when Sarah broke her arm and had a hard time putting on coats, my mother in Michigan bought her a lovely cape. She carefully packaged it up and sent it through the US Postal Service. The package did not arrive. Instead, we had a not e from Canada Post saying that we could pick up the package when we showed up at their office with $20 tax.

I was very confused because my mom said she got such a good deal on the cape at a department store. She paid under $60. But, in an apparent attempt to impress the postal clerk, the Canadian customs officials, the Canadian postal carrier, Sarah, Jesus, and me, she put the original retail price of the cape on the customs form--$120.

While this incident was frustrating, it was my mother’s fault, and I told her she needed to be careful what she wrote on customs forms. (A few months later, I accidentally left my soccer shin guards in Michigan and asked my brother to mail them to me. After he sent them off, I realized I never warned him about the value on the form. My old, scary shinguards probably have a negative value, and I wasn’t about to pay tax to receive those through the mail. Luckily, he put the value at $0, which was probably generous.)

I did find myself quite angry with a recent incident involving shipping from the US. My hockey helmet was cracked, so I bought a new one here in Canada. It is plain, and I like to put fun stickers on my helmet, so I looked--where else--online to find Phoenix Coyotes helmet stickers. Sure enough, all kinds of US businesses have them for sale online. They cost US $10 per sheet. I ordered two sheets, and then had to pay $15 for shipping to Canada. I was already a bit miffed at paying 75% of the cost of the items on shipping, but it was still easier than trying to find the same thing in stores here.

About a week later, I arrived home to find a love note from UPS on my door. It said that it was a COD delivery and that I needed to pony up $21 as a “brokerage fee” to receive the package. I was livid. I did some research online and found that this is not unusual. UPS feels that they deserve extra pay for escorting packages through Canadian customs. The actual breakdown of the $21 was about $3 in taxes to the Canadian government and $18 for UPS!

I was not about to pay a mysterious “brokerage fee” that cost about the same amount as the items I ordered and more than the shipping cost. And, even though the value of the items was US $19.98, under the $20 threshold, the value in Canadian dollars was over $20. But, the tax wasn’t my beef. It was the UPS fee.

The company that sent the stickers was told by UPS that I had refused the shipment, so the company promptly sent out more stickers, but this time through the US Postal Service, and they don’t charge such a fee. (Completely off the subject, but I was happy to be the recipient of such great US customer service from SportStar Athletics.)

My parents are coming to visit me next month, so I have been having all of my packages sent to their house, and they can bring those when they come. But, shipping to my home in Canada is going to be an ongoing issue.

Here are my tips for those in Canada receiving packages from outside the country:

1) Do not buy from anyone who ships UPS, FedEx, DHL, etc. Request that they use their own country’s postal service.

2) If what you are being sent is a gift, make sure the person mailing it marks “gift” on the customs form.

3) The value of an item is not always the same as the price paid for it, but they are essentially the same thing. Have the sender use the lower amount of the two.

4) I don’t have a lot of details about this, but apparently, if something you buy or are being given was made in the US, Mexico, or Canada, it can be mailed within these countries without a tax penalty as part of NAFTA. I don’t even know if this is true, but earlier this year, I bought a hockey jersey online from a seller in the US. The jersey was made in Canada. He was given a special customs form for attaching to the package, and I was not charged any tax on its arrival, even though the value was within the taxable range.

If you have any other suggestions to make international mailing any easier, leave me a comment and I can add it to a future post!

1 comment:

MSEH said...

Great post! There's definitely a learning curve for those of us who like to shop online.

Re NAFTA - I was told that items made in a NAFTA country can enter without DUTY, but are still taxable. Tax and duty are different things.

E.g., I bought a Subaru Forester in Maine. It was made in Japan. I had to pay 6% duty and 13% HST (harmonized sales tax, or PST + GST for those of you in non-HST provinces). Had I bought a Subaru Outback, made in the US, I would only have had to pay tax, no duty, because it falls under NAFTA. And, yes, even with all the duty/taxes - and you pay tax on the duty, which really pissed me off - and other fees, it was still cheaper to import the vehicle.

BTW, some companies (e.g., LL Bean) are really experienced with Canada shipping and a pleasure to deal w.

Anyway, great post. The only other thing I'd add is that not every vendor in the US will ship to Canada. With some you're just outta luck.

Take care!