International eBay Sales: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
By Lu Paletta
The growth of online auction sites allows sellers to market their wares well beyond local areas. Selling to buyers in Canada, Europe and the Far East can be exciting, but occasionally, you can run into challenges.
Sometimes, English is not the primary language of the bidder, or they don't understand currency exchange. Sometimes the bidder does not understand his or her home country's rules, regulations and possible duty on receiving packages from the U.S.
Sometimes the package disappears into a deep hole never to be seen again. It can get down right ugly if the bidder files a complaint or claims they never got their package or is damaged, and there is little you as a seller can do from thousands of miles away.
As a seller, you need to read the sections on your listing sites about international sales. Be aware of the regulations and pitfalls of selling internationally. Being prepared will greatly aid your business and possibly save you from frustration and financial loss.
Most problems that occur with international trading are related to shipping. Reputable carriers such as UPS, DHL and FedEx are very knowledgeable about the rules and regulations for the various countries. However, they use customs brokers, which may result in additional fees being charged to your buyer in the form of duties and import fees. You may want to consider using the postal service, which does not charge brokerage fees, but may charge the duty and import fees.
Rates provided by online shipping calculators generally only estimate domestic rates. eBay allows international buyers to enter their postal code and country to calculate the shipping cost using their shipping calculator. This should be treated as an estimator only and not a definitive statement of shipping costs.
Always include a disclaimer in your listing that the international shipping calculator is an estimate and exact charges may (and probably will) be higher. At my company, we place at the bottom of our listing and in the "rules" section of our auctions the following disclaimer: "We welcome international bidders. Please contact us directly for shipping rates at email@example.com."
Many countries, including Canada, charge the buyer duties, taxes and import fees that you, as a seller, may never be aware of. Most international bidders are aware of this and understand it is part of the purchase process. If they are not, you are the one that is going to hear about it even though it is not in your control.
It is the seller's responsibility to ensure compliance with all domestic, international, and individual country rules and regulations for mailability. Keep in mind that items that are acceptable in one country might not be acceptable in another. Each destination country has special prohibitions or restrictions on particular goods.
Generally prohibited articles include items that can injure postal employees or equipment, items that are prohibited from U.S. domestic mail, matches, most live or dead animals and plants, flammable liquids, radioactive materials and firearms capable of being concealed on the person
Proper packaging is very important for international shipments as they will undergo much more handling than domestic packages. Proper packaging includes using a sturdy box, properly cushioning the contents, securely closing the package, and using proper labeling.
At BNP we put a copy of the transaction inside the package. This serves two purposes. If the package is opened by a customs inspector, they will see exact details about the shipment. Also, if the label is destroyed or unreadable, the information is now on the inside as well.
The most frequently used methods of shipping via the USPS for international auctions are express (1-5 days), priority (4-6 days), airmail (4-10 days) or parcel post/economy (4-6 weeks). Global priority and express will be more costly. Economy was formerly called "surface"; it is least costly but will take longer. DHL, UPS and FedEx also have similar classifications of shipments.
Some countries impose size limits for packaging. General rules of thumb are minimum length and width of 5 1/2 inches by 3 1/2 inches and maximum length and girth of 79 inches. The maximum weight limit for parcel post packages varies by country but ranges from 22 pounds to 70 pounds. Letters may have different shapes, sizes, and contents and must weigh 4 pounds or less. If you use flat rate envelopes from the U.S. Postal Service or another carrier, these items must seal naturally and not with tape.
International mail is subject to customs examination in the destination country. Customs is the government agency responsible for regulating shipments entering a country.
Specific documentation is required in order to clear customs, and as an online seller, you'll need to provide the correct documentation so that your item won't be held indefinitely by customs. Most carriers (including USPS, UPS, FedEx and DHL) use a customs broker to make sure your items are not held up. If uncertain, contact your carrier for information.
Customs forms and documentation must appear on the outside of the packaging. If you use the USPS for shipping, the forms (PS Form 2976 or 2976-A) are readily available online or at the local post office. The documentation required may vary from carrier to carrier.
Using a commercial carrier has its advantages in that they take care of all the paperwork for you, provide complimentary insurance up to a certain value and provide a tracking number. You and the buyer can track the package in-transit and receive notification when delivered.
If using the UPSP, it is advisable to purchase the Recorded Delivery Service or Return Receipt Service at time of shipment. Recorded Delivery is the international service equivalent of domestic certified mail. It provides the sender with a numbered mailing receipt and in time, a confirmation of delivery. However, only the foreign post office keeps a record of delivery, not the USPS. It does not apply to parcel post packages.
For proof of delivery of parcel post packages, you must first insure them against loss, damage or rifling. The insured value (insurance coverage) may not be more than the declared value of the contents. However, insured value may be less than declared value, depending on the wish of the sender. Then purchase Return Receipt Service on the insured package, which provides the sender with confirmation of delivery.
The transit time for international shipments varies based on the point of export and the destination country. Political, social and environmental events in a country may also effect delivery time. At one point last year, Canadian customs had a 15-20 day delay on all shipments. As a seller, you can do nothing about this, but your customer will be upset when their shipment is delayed.
Being aware of the international rules and taking proactive measures at time of shipment should be important part of your business. This will help you in the case the buyer claims the item was damaged or never arrived. If not, you will either have to refund the money or ship a duplicate item.
At BNP, we offer international customers a variety of shipping options, which allows them to choose how soon they will receive the item and how much the shipping will cost. We always offer insurance and if the customer declines, advise them we claim no liability in case of loss, damage or rifling.
International sales open a whole new market for sellers. It can be very good for business but also has its challenges. Educate yourself on the rules and best business practices and you can be very successful.
About the author:
Lu Paletta is a partner in Bid-N-Pack, LLC, a full-service online ecommerce business http://www.bid-n-pack.com. In addition to consignment auctions, B-N-P reps consumer electronic items, sells business overstock and closeout inventories. BNP also conducts fundraising for non-profit organizations via online fundraisers. Lu has over 20 years in the consumer electronics industry. An autograph collector and history buff, she is the author of three books on the American presidency and political process. She is a regular contributor to political newsletters, has conducted radio commentary on elections and is a frequent guest speaker to civic groups and schools on American history.
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