Staff collect items which will be packaged and dispatched from one of the UK's largest Amazon warehouses,  in Dunfermline, Fife.  There are extra shipment charges on some online deals that international retailers often don't bother to disclose. Picture:  GETTY IMAGES
Staff collect items which will be packaged and dispatched from one of the UK's largest Amazon warehouses, in Dunfermline, Fife. There are extra shipment charges on some online deals that international retailers often don't bother to disclose. Picture: GETTY IMAGES

The desire to shop on international online sites and the Black Friday retail phenomenon are driving e-commerce at a phenomenal rate in South Africa - but it can be a costly exercise for the unwary.

Many click on a Facebook advert and pay for goods they never receive, or unwittingly have their credit cards repeatedly debited. Others think they're getting a bargain on a foreign site, but fail to factor in customs, VAT and clearance fees.

Last year, 43% of South African online shoppers bought from foreign sites, according to the PayPal and Ipsos cross-border commerce report. The US is the most popular international online destination for South Africans, followed by China and the UK.

Johannesburg financial planner Peter Hewett was browsing Facebook last month when an advert for a drone caught his eye.

He watched the video, thought it would make an ideal gift for his son, clicked on "shop now" and added a cellphone case to his order, which came to just over R1600 ($116). But the drone never arrived.

His FNB Visa credit card statement describes the vendor as "trendingdealstore. com". He says: "I was promised a tracking number, but never got one, and all my e-mails went unanswered."

Hewett will be lodging a chargeback dispute with FNB and researching online sites before making a purchase in future.

Offered by Visa and MasterCard, chargeback gives refunds on credit-card purchases, via the banks, should customers not get what they paid for. Facebook adverts are problematic: fake testimonials are rife.

In August, high-profile UK money-saving expert Martin Lewis issued an urgent warning about Facebook scam adverts.

Groundhog Day bargains

Marie Pretorius, MD of Cosmetique 2000 in Johannesburg, said a company advertising Lutrevia Youth Cream on Facebook had "hijacked" Cosmetique's brand ambassador, actress Sandra Prinsloo, to market its products. It offers a "free trial" of its products, but the well-hidden terms and conditions commit those who respond to "an auto-shipment program which sends you a one-month supply every 30 days".

It's an online shopping trap that catches many who are averse to reading "Ts and Cs", and the banks won't entertain disputes from victims, calling them "invalid" because of the cardholder's consent, albeit unwitting.

Such misleading, deceptive advertising would certainly fall foul of the Consumer Protection Act and the Advertising Standards Authority's code of conduct, but many of these sites are not based in South Africa.

Online sales made up slightly more than 1% of overall retail in South Africa last year, but local online retailers are enjoying double-digit growth. Many consumers who shied away from online shopping out of security fears took their first shop-by-clicks plunge on Black Friday because of the convenience factor, array of bargains, ability to start shopping at a minute past midnight and some consumer-friendly returns policies.

Extra charges, extra hassle

The take on this year's Black Friday is still being tallied, but Grant Brown, MD of Zando, the country's biggest online fashion retailer, says 30% of those who shopped on Zando last Black Friday were new customers.

More South Africans are shopping on global websites. Some online retailers include shipping fees and customs duties in their pricing, but others leave South African recipients paying hefty customs duties and VAT on collection of their parcels.

If these are posted rather than couriered, there's an extra cost international companies don't mention - post office clearance fees.

Until recently, if you bought a small item from a foreign online site it would be delivered to your postbox. But as many who shop on Wish.com have found, the South African Post Office has begun levying a handling or "clearance fee" on all parcels from overseas: R24 (small parcel) and R48 (large).

Many foreign e-tailers won't ship to South Africa, or charge dearly to do so. This led to the founding of Aramex Global Shopper.

"South Africans can take advantage of overseas sales through our service - they simply need to input the postal address for the relevant overseas Aramex branch when shopping online (aramexglobalshopper.com). Once the parcel is delivered to that address, we'll deliver it to their door," says Aramex e-commerce services manager Mark Mahoney. But, on top of customs duties and VAT charged by the South African Revenue Service, Aramex levies a clearance charge of R50 per shipment and a disbursement fee of 2.75% of the customs duties.

consumer@knowler.co.za 

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