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Q&A: How Brexit has impacted online shopping from the UK

Pricewatch: Higher charges and a loss of some rights are just some of the problems

It has been 11 days since the UK left the EU after a brief transition period that was entirely good-natured, seamless and uncomplicated. Hilarious, right? No, as we all know all too well Brexit could scarcely have been more drawn out and torturous had it been implemented by Torquemada (bet you didn't expect the Spanish Inquisition here did you?) but at least it is done now.

The no-deal nightmare before Christmas was avoided when the two sides cobbled together the Withdrawal Agreement on December 24th. While the deal stopped our disgruntled neighbour to the east crashing out of the EU in a fashion that would have left us all scratching our heads in bewilderment, it will cause many headaches – financial and logistical in the weeks and months ahead.

Among the ways Brexit will impact people here first will be the addition reams of red tape and form filling alongside higher charges on many goods and a loss of rights when dealing with British companies – or at least a loss of legally enforceable at EU level rights. So we thought now might be the time to answer just some of the questions you might have and hopefully help you to avoid some heartache in the future.

Can you tell me how Brexit will impact my online shopping habit?
Well, if your shopping habit relies on UK-based retailers we have some bad news for you and you can expect to pay more for stuff you buy from British-based websites. You are also likely to see some companies refuse to deliver to you. How much more you will have to pay depends on what you are buying, where it comes from and how much it costs.

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I didn't know any of this was going to happen?
Don't worry, you are not alone. Recent research from the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission shows that before Christmas only 15 per cent of consumers understood that buying from non-EU websites attracted higher taxes and charges.

Okay, so what's the damage? How much more might I have to pay?
Brace yourself. The price of some goods bought by people in Ireland from UK-based websites could increase by over 40 per cent once new taxes and charges are added to the list price.

What? That sounds ridiculous.
The figures have come from Revenue and they know what they are talking about. In a pre-Christmas briefing aimed at raising awareness of the impact of Brexit on consumers, Revenue outlined three scenarios online shoppers should consider when buying from a UK website.

The first one was the best one. Online shoppers will not face additional import charges when buying something for €22 or less – a price which must include shipping, delivery, insurance and handling charges. However, once the value of the goods goes above that, then Irish VAT will be payable. Consumers will also have to pay customs duty and VAT if the value of the goods is more than €150 (excluding shipping, delivery, insurance and handling charges).

But what does that mean for the actual cost of stuff?
Let's say you buy a nice jumper off a UK-based website for €167. It might end up costing you €236.32 once VAT and other charges are added to the price.

Jaysus. And who imposes the charges?
It can be done in different ways. An online retailer in the UK might include any additional costs in the final price for you and you will pay it at the time of purchase. As many as 95 per cent of UK retailers will add any VAT or customs charges at the online checkout. There are about 16 million parcels that come from there to here in a given year so that still leaves close to a million parcels that will attract taxes at your front door.

What do you mean by that?
Retailers can alternatively charge the same price to you as they would to consumers in the UK after which the carrier or postal service delivering the goods to you will have to complete custom formalities and the amount of VAT and duties will be calculated by customs based on the information they are given by the delivery company. You will then have to pay those charges to the carrier or the postal service.

And if I don’t pay the postman?

You don't get the goods. It is that simple. This is made even less attractive because
not only will you have to pay the taxes, you will also have to pay the admin costs of the delivery company, which will is likely to be at least a tenner a pop although it could handily be closer to €15.

But hang on a second, I thought the Christmas Eve Deal meant Britain had tariff-free access to the Single Market. This doesn't sound like tariff-free access to me.
Yeah, Pricewatch thought the same thing. So we got on to the Revenue people again. As ever, they were able to break it down for us in a way that made sense. The Withdrawal Agreement does indeed ensure tariff-free trade between the EU and the UK but – and this is the important bit – only when the origin of the goods is actually the UK.

What does that mean?
Revenue says "no tariffs will apply if goods entering the EU from the UK are proven to be of UK origin and a request for preferential treatment has been included on the customs declaration. Similarly no tariffs will apply if goods being exported to the UK from the EU are proven to be of EU origin."

I am guessing that the fancy telly I want to buy on amazon.co.uk didn't actually originate in the UK?
It seems unlikely to be honest. Similarly not many of the clothes or trainers you might see selling on popular UK-based websites were made in England, Scotland or Wales. If, however, you are in the market for a hand-knitted jumper from Cornwall made with wool from Cornish sheep then you should be all set.

Has Revenue any advice for me?
It says you "need to be vigilant when buying goods from the UK (excluding Northern Ireland). Consumers need to be sure of what they are buying, where the good(s) originated from and the T&Cs provided by the supplier in relation to returns and refunds. Goods coming from Great Britain are regarded as imports and Irish VAT will apply if the value of the good(s) is over €22. This position stands even if consumers are charged UK VAT on their purchase. In this instance the consumer will need to seek a refund of the UK VAT from the supplier."

What have the big players in the retail world being doing?
They have taken different steps to deal with Brexit. Next has set up an Irish company so it can continue to sell online here without any changes. Asos has promised Irish shoppers they can avoid any customs duties or import taxes because it will deliver to Ireland from EU-based depots. Littlewoods says customers will not have to worry about being hit with extra duty or VAT on their deliveries as it will factor them into the costs. It has also promised to stick with free delivery to the Republic.

So that means the prices on the Littlewoods site will stay the same?
Um, no. That is not what they have said. They have just said they will take care of the taxes and charges and charge whatever is necessary before you check out.

What about Amazon?
It is probably the biggest player in the online delivery space in this part of the world and it has warned customers that they may face "customs duties, taxes and fees" on purchases and has said it will no longer accept free returns and "any costs incurred for the return including transport costs, as well as any associated import fees of customs, will be payable by the person returning the goods".

What about the virtual address people?
Many of these serves are up in the air too. Parcel Motel, for instance, has suspended its UK virtual address service and as of the middle of last week it was telling customers it was "working diligently to update our product offering to meet the new post-Brexit requirements and better serve your shopping needs. When we know what these new requirements entail and if it is still feasible to shop in the UK via a virtual address, we will consider the reintroduction of the service and/or other services which facilitate online shopping". AddressPal, from An Post, is still operating with an administration fee of €3.50 attached to all items, as well as a UK service fee of €6.50.There may also be additional customs charges.

Apart from paying more is there anything else I have to worry about?
Yes. Sorry. Now that the UK has left the EU, the country is no longer governed by long-standing EU rules which means consumers' existing EU rights no longer automatically apply when buying from a UK website post Brexit. EU Consumer Protection law gives Irish consumers the right to change their mind after they receive their purchases and other strong protections when buying online and while many UK companies will use the same rules post-Brexit – they won't actually have to – which means consumers here may find it difficult to enforce their rights if they get into disputes with UK retailers.

As well as costs will there be more red tape?
Oh you can take that to the bank. For the almost five decades the UK was a member of the EU, the movement of parcel post between the two jurisdictions was seamless with few, if any, customs obstacles. But things have changed and there will be a form-filling exercises attached to goods travelling to and from Britain with electronic customs data required for each item before posting.

What can I do to avoid all this messing?
Well, you can shop on Irish-based websites. Not only would you be avoiding any horrible surprises when it comes to extra taxes and charges, you would also be supporting local businesses at a time when they really need it. If you really want to shop on the likes of Amazon you could also look at the German, French or Spanish based Amazon sites. You won't get the free delivery but you should be able to access more products. But, to be honest, we reckon the shopping local solution is, by far, the best thing you can do.

Is there any good news?
Well, for the first time in more than 20 years people travelling to the State from British ports and airports will be able to load their luggage or their cars with tax-free tobacco, alcohol, perfumes and so-called luxury items. Duty-free between Ireland and Britain was abolished 21 years ago as it was not considered compatible with the emerging single market. However, the old rules are set to revert.

What are those rules?
According to Revenue, people travelling from non-EU countries can bring in goods free of duty and tax if their combined value is no more than €430 if the passenger is 15 or over, or €215 if they are under 15. Technically, then, a family of two adults and two children returning from a weekend in the British capital could bring in a total of €1,290 as long as they could divide it up as necessary. In addition to a duty-free allowance for general goods, travellers will have allowances for alcohol and tobacco products. Those allowance permit 200 cigarettes, 100 cigarillos, 50 cigars or 250g of smoking tobacco. Under Revenue's rules people will be allowed one litre of spirits or two litres of other alcoholic drinks with no more than 22 per cent alcohol . These might include port, sherry, sparkling wine and some liqueurs Up to four litres of wine and 16 litres of beer will also be exempt from duty under the new post-Brexit rules.

So I can go on a booze cruise to Holyhead?
You absolutely can't. We are still in the middle of a pandemic and we cannot stress enough how unessential a trip to Britain to buy cheaper fags is.

Hang on, the EU abolished roaming charges but now that the UK has left the EU might I have to pay extra to call home from the UK – or Newry – when I'm allowed to travel again?
There is some good news here. All the main providers have said that even though the UK is no longer in the EU they will not apply any additional charges to people calling to or from the UK.

Conor Pope

Conor Pope

Conor Pope is Consumer Affairs Correspondent, Pricewatch Editor