Should you order from abroad?

Someone, on one of the blogs (I think it's Deja Pseu's always-enlightening "Une femme d'un certain age") mentioned that she shops mainly by online sites or catalogs. 

I do that, too. It's easy, and fun when the parcel arrives. (You do have to pay for it, but the frisson of opening the box is no small pleasure.)  

And access is a big part of the appeal. Even big-city shops carry only so much inventory; the recession has cut the offerings. (Shown, cashmere lace jumper by Brora in elderberry.)

Someone sent me an e-mail; she was distressed because her Eric Bompard sweater, ordered on sale, cost nearly 50% more due to customs duties and and taxes, shipping fees, and a delivery fee by Canada Post. 

I replied sympathetically, but basically, that's the price of poker, and reflects several realities:

1. If you live outside the EU, you are not charged Value-Added Tax (VAT), currently 19.6%, but your government gets you on the other end, charging applicable taxes for importing the item. 

When you indicate your country for delivery, if VAT does not apply, you will not be charged– but sometimes you have to watch the merchant. Liberty of London were going to charge VAT on my Diamond Jubilee scarf till I questioned them. They said, "We do offer a VAT refund but this is not automatically deducted by our website when ordering". In other words, your lookout.

2. Shipping (courier) fees for international deliveries are seldom waived by European sellers, unlike US vendors, who sometimes comp them even on Canadian orders. Because there is a minimum courier charge, you can pay 20 shipping for pair of gloves that weigh nothing!
UPDATE: Bompard are waiving them this week, as a special promotion.

3. Finally, the Government of Canada charges about $10 for trotting your sweater to your door or holding it at a postal outlet till you pick it up.  That's because they don't get any of that shipping fee you paid for your redcurrant Bolero, and they are incurring costs.

Now: maybe half the time, my UK or French orders come thorough with no duty. Karma? Thanks for Dad's wartime service?  Who knows, and I'm not tracking down some bureaucrat to find out. If I knew how to ensure this occasional lucky strike, I'd tell you.

When I order from the US, I'm assessed duty without fail. (Nice try, but the North American Free Trade Act does not apply to goods manufactured outside the US, even if you ordered them from a US merchant.)

But my point (and thank you for hanging in through all this) is, when you buy an imported item locally, you are paying those same fees, but they are buried in the price, and you're also paying local sales tax. 

You might also incur related expenses, e.g., parking, gas and that palette of Estée Lauder eyeshadow you bought in order to get the bag of free stuff that you probably don't need.

You can get a cheaper new sweater, say, at The Bay, but if comparing equal quality, you'll pay at least as much, and good luck getting the little card of matching wool for repairs or an extra button, niceties I have not seen from North American vendors since Christ was a cowboy.

The best online merchants offer an enticing range of styles, colours and sizes, and I've been very satisfied with their service.

If you want a black crew neck, stick close to home; you can find the basics within your borders. 

But if you yearn for a retro stitch tunisien in bird song blue, save up, pay the freight and enjoy every snuggly moment. I usually wait for sales or promotions, with a bookmarked catalog and an eye on currency conversion. Discounts offset the bite of duties, taxes and shipping costs.

A return means you're entitled to a refund of tax and duty, but you have to do the work yourself. Complete a brief form (which in Canada is part of the customs form stuck to your box), attach the receipts and proof of return (such as your credit card statement showing the credited amount) and wait a few months to get a cheque. I go through the hassle, but my returns are rare. 

Occasionally customs mistakenly assesses the wrong amount of duty; unless you are ordering regularly (guilty!) you might not know it is weirdly high, but if the duty is over about 33%, call and inquire. And if you buy on sale, make sure the merchant has entered the sale price, not the full price, on the customs form.

Some of the pieces I've bought from US and European merchants will soon be on my back for the twentieth-plus winter. That takes the chill out of the government's interest in our little luxuries. At least, that's how I'm rationalizing my order.



Susan B said…
Great tips, Duchesse! The last couple of items I've ordered from EU were held up in US customs, and the packages obviously opened and inspected (though contents not disturbed). That's a situational hazard too, but worth it to get that Bompard sweater or scarf on sale!
LPC said…
Don't think I didn't take advantage of that Bompard no shipping charge last night:).
KSL said…
I've had so much trouble with Bompard and none with Brora. Not sure why? My Bompard was held up in customs, numerous phone calls, weeks delay ~ took a hunk out of the pleasure of online shopping.
Love that robin's egg blue sweater though - debating debating......
materfamilias said…
I don't do much online shopping, but by coincidence, yesterday I wore the Bompard v-neck I ordered last winter. As you say, yes, the fees on pick-up were a bit annoying, but I quickly calculated the overall cost and found that for the quality, I was still ahead.
barbara said…

You give so sweet comfort here!Being European I just pay € 10 for shipping and that's it.
Shopping in the States is same thing for us viceversa.
To open a Bompard parcel is such a great pleasure because of the laughing goat you find everywhere: bill, bags...
This tunisien is on of the pieces I'm hoping gets to the Sale.
I do shop online for Lands End and a few from the UK but there is a steep charge from international vendors.

It's buyer beware all over again.
sisty said…
Great tips, for if and when I ever order from a seller overseas. I'm not much of an internet shopper, period -- I like to feel and try on, and returning things by mail is such a royal pain.

However, I'd do it all happily to get my hands on that gorgeous red bolero sweater!
I was an early adopter and I have been ordering online for nearly 15 years now. It's the only way to get my hands on those little luxuries, as you call them. Sometimes I have been lucky and have not had to pay any extra duty, but other times, I've been hit hard with duties over 30%.
Kristien62 said…
I can just imagine what the duty will be on the goods I had shipped back from Ireland. Took care of the VAT at the airport which wasn't too bad. You certainly know your stuff when it comes to purchasing from abroad.
Anonymous said…
Anyone have any input regarding this service?
frugalscholar said…
I am usually disappointed with mail-order clothing, so i stick to places with at least free shipping (and preferably with free returns too, though I am flexible on that).

As for items from abroad--well, that just gives me incentive to wait for my next trip. I have peered in the windows of your beloved Bompard. Unfortunately, the shop was closed, so I did not get a chance to go in.

I'd love to see pics (or at least descriptions) of the items you've been wearing for 20 years. Impresive.
Duchesse said…
Pseu: Yes, that happens and sometimes the package is rather sloppily resealed.

LPC: You and me, girlfriend :)

Kathy Leeds: That your order was held up in customs is usually not the fault of the shipper. (Unless they did not accurately fill out the customs form?) Packages can get stuck in the black hole of customs for weeks, so it's wise to build in that possibility if ordering a gift that has to arrive on time. (Express shipping does not guarantee what happens at customs. They are entirely separate.)

materfamilias: After years of only being able to buy Bompard in France I'm so happy to be able to get it fairly easily.

barbara: I've actually had faster service from some European merchants than from those within Canada! Got a package from the UK in 2 days.

hostess: I have at times been disappointed in Lands' End quality and at other times it's been fine. Ordering anything is always a small risk but there are things I want that I can't find locally, so I take it.

sisty: Well, that's it- sometimes it is the only way (besides buying a plane ticket)!

Louise: Me, too. I just figure it averages out to something I can live with but I'd sure like to know what makes some packages float in and others draw the taxes and duty.

Kristien62: I'm not sure where you live, but you're allowed a considerable amount duty free for goods bought by you when traveling... or did you go a bit wild?

Duchesse said…

Have not used them, but have used similar (Borderfree). This service allows a foreign buyer to access vendors who normally do not ship outside the USA- that's the whole point and the only time worth thinking of it.

The key word is *service*-it's essentially a brokerage function. The buyer is still paying duty, taxes, shipping etc., plus a service fee. And some goods cannot be imported into other countries, even if you use these services (b/c of licensing restrictions.)

There is another service for Canadians who live near the border and are willing to drive into the US to pick up their packages. (See That service receives your package and holds it till you pick it up at your nearest US location (e.g., Plattsburg for Montréalers.) A family member has used this and was very happy.
Duchesse said…
frugal: Everyday free shipping is a lovely thing, but you, Frugallisima, are savvy enough to realize that cost is buried in the price, as their analytics tell them the average shipping cost for every item. (Free returns are also considered in pricing and your returns history is in the database.) Nothing is *really* free, but psychologically it's such a comforting illusion.

Still wearing every sweater bought from EB, from 1986 (on honeymoon) through this year's. The 20+ year items are Classic V-neck Cardis (MO2, which I still buy) a couple of classic turtlenecks and an intarsia bird-pattern black v-neck that admit is not worn often as never want it to wear out.

The ultrafines are not as hardy but might suit you better, considering where you live!

Cashmere can last, if the moths don't get to it, and barring accidents. I wore a Ballantyne hand-me-down of my sister's and clocked 31 years, going strong until it mysteriously disappeared from a hotel room.

william said…
That is all so complicated, Duchesse! After learning about Eric Bompard from you, I have ordered a new v-necked cardigan each year for 2 years on sale and have loved both of them. This fall I have ordered 2 sweaters, one the clover green peter pan collar you featured, and the other an off-white v-neck cardigan for a Christmas gift-- neither on sale and I fear neither will receive free shipping-- n'importe, it is OK! Thank you again so much for introducing me to these gorgeous sweaters. We went into their flagship store in Paris in April and I resisted, thinking of their January sale!!!
Duchesse said…
Francie: I sometimes have ordered when I felt like it (more often in the years when I worked full time), or when offered a gift... and there's always the risk that 'your' sweater will be gone by sale time. Yes, this is a complicated post. I wanted to raise the matter as more than one reader was mighty exercised about import costs for items I have featured. One wrote, "You should have told me".
Gretchen said…
I've had a terrible time ordering from UK sites, thanks to the US banking system. Every single time, the bank (two different ones) put a freeze on my card and didn't tell me, so that when I tried to use it elsewhere, my card was declined. Irritating beyond belief. Banks claim its a fraud protection issue, but I think it's just plain poor service.
Duchesse said…
Gretchen: Not sure if your card wss frozen before you ordered from foreign site or after, but ordering from foreign sites can trigger a fraud alert and if you don't know what's happened, it's frustrating and embarrassing. Glad you commented so if anyone else has that problem they can sort it out.

I have a friend who is so terrified of fraud on her card she won't shop for anything online but asks me buy stuff for her, using mine!
Anonymous said…
It does seem that these days, cashmere is the only fabric that matters & I agree it is very soft . What are your thoughts on merino wool ? It used to be very popular & some of my merino seems to go on forever but it is difficult to find now , at least in the UK . Perhaps I am lucky in that I do not find wool irritates my skin , which I know is a problem for a lot of people . It would be interesting to have you compare the different types of wool .
Duchesse said…
Wendy: Yes, merino is a marvelous wool, hard-wearing yet relatively soft.

It's also popular here as a performance sport layer, such as those made by the Icebreaker brand from NZ b/c it doesn't retain odor like the synthetics. Merino has an ability to 'float' in terms of temperature, warm when you need it but not too heavy on a mild day. Great for travel.

Though booth classed as "wool", we are comparing sheep to goat. Cashmere has that 'ooooh' factor, soft and light yet warm. The sensory effect of cashmere is noticeably different than that of merino. And a very good merino is a smarter buy than a cheap cashmere.

The Montréal brand ça va de soie design discreet, beautiful fine- merino sweaters. (I can't find a UK distributor though.) See

Check the merinos on offer now @ Lands' End- 11 styles on sale:

Though you mention that many people cannot wear wool, I don't know a single one personally. But they exist, and can find cozy solace in the new generation polar fleeces, which don't pill like the old ones did, and come in appealing colours- or in a piece like a padded silk jacket.

And some people can wear the other wools like alpaca and the terrifyingly expensive vicuna.
Kristien62 said…
Duchesse-I did go a tad wild at one of the woolen mills. My husband was sitting on a couch covered in merchandise and having his picture taken by amused tourists. But I did earn free shipping and all that I bought is for Christmas (except for a lovely full length fisherman knit sweater coat and an embroidered scarf for moi.)
Anonymous said…
Thank you for all the details regarding buying online off shore. I am concerned about sizing, I want to avoid returns. How does the Brora sizing match up to what their site states?
Duchesse said…
Anon@5:17: It's accurate- but they only give the chest circumference and average body length. If you want exact body length or sleeve length, call or e-mail. I find customer feedback comments re sizing varies so much I can't relay on it.

I measure one of my similar sweaters as a comparison.

With any vendor, I make my best guess on a first order- usually I'm OK but sometimes there is a weird undisclosed feature like a Bompard piece that had unbelievably narrow arms.

Anonymous said…
"since Christ was a cowboy"...really? Was that phrase really crucial to your post? Please remember that some people care about these things.
Duchesse said…
Anonymous: I am not writing for you, a person hiding behind the chickens---t veil of anonymnity, that's for sure.

And yes, the phrase is crucial for me I use it all the time, along with others you wouldn't like. I'm sure you can find some innocuous blogs that do not offend you. Go there.
Gretchen said…
Ha! You tell 'em, Duchesse!! I have not heard that phrase before but immediately coopted it for my own use. I am getting incredibly tired of anonymous comments, in blog discussions, in the newspaper, and other venues, and even more tired of holier than thou attitudes, surrounding religion mostly but also on other topics. May that anonymous person's underwear give them an eternal wedgie.
barbara said…
Me too!
I like to enrich my daily slang, and I hope you let us know a few more phrases,Duchesse.
Wendy: Merino wool in UK is offered by Toast, Uniqlo and Peter Hahn.
No option though for me, I find everything beyond Cashemere itchy and scratchy, even Merino.
Duchesse said…
barbara: My Dad used to say that, he probably picked it up in Texas. I've also heard the expression in Calgary, Alberta-anywhere there are cowboys, I guess.
Anonymous said…
I looked at the Government of Canada's site with regard to Duties and it was confusing, difficult, opaque ... and not in a good way :D
Duchesse said…
Anon@1:12: This Canadian Border Services Agency site contains clear info (but the punctuation is an embarrassment):

Tariff classification (i.e., amount of tax and duty charged for an item) is complex- it is a huge database; have not seen that online. IME it's about 22% on the garments coming from France or UK.

The CBSA site lists a number to call if you need the precise info:
Unknown said…
Now that the discussion has gotten heated, then simmered down, perhaps it's time to respond. In answer to the question, "Should you order from abroad?" I would have to answer that it would depend on whether the the broad in question offered free shipping. (Awww come on, someone had to say it!)
I haven't ordered clothing, but lots of books on subjects hard to find in the US. I may, after this.

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