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eComm Woes

October 27, 2006

I get odd looks from people when I tell them I make it a general policy not to order goods online. Sure, I pay for services and registration fees and the sort, but actual physical tangible goods? No way. And I realize that’s ironic for somebody who works on the web, but there’s a reason for it.

When I’m ordering from Canadian retailers, given shipping costs and waiting periods, it usually just makes more sense to walk into a local outlet of the store and buy whatever it is I need. Instant gratification being what it is, I’ve never adapted to the time offset between paying and receiving a book or a CD. Plus, it’s slightly cheaper.

But the reason I bring this up is because my experience ordering from out-of-country retailers has been just plain awful thus far. If things go right, I place an order, pay for the item and shipping, wait, and then pay again when the item shows up. When something crosses a border, customs duties are involved. In the end I probably spend 25% more than I would have if I’d just bought a local equivalent of the item. (And that 25% is only because the Canadian dollar is relatively strong right now; 5 years ago I spent $50 CDN at Amazon on a book listed at $20 USD).

That’s if things go right. So you can imagine that it takes special cases to entice me into ordering something from another country. This happens from time to time; and when it does, it’s only ever gone wrong. How wrong? Here are two examples:


Everyone seems to swear by Even with exchange rates and shipping and cross-border taxes, it seemed to me that upgrading my Mac’s RAM a year or so ago would best be done by ordering from Crucial. So I decided to give them a try.

After two weeks my RAM showed up and I paid my customs fee of about $70. Once I popped it in the computer, it appeared I had only received 768MB, not the 1GB I ordered. After swapping the sticks and trying again, it was obvious that one of the sticks was labeled as 512MB, when it was in fact 256MB.

After a phone call I was sent a special envelope, in went the RAM, and then I waited. And waited. Long story short, it took me a month and multiple hours on the phone to actually get the replacement, and the kicker is that as it crossed the border, I got hit with a second customs fee of $35.

Naturally, Crucial’s policy is not to cover that fee. Naturally, I do not shop at Crucial anymore.


Moo is this new company that does micro-printing for cheap, and it’s all quite interesting. After seeing a few people blog their love for Moo, I decided I must have 200 Flickr mini-cards.

Order placed, cards selected, excitement building. Two weeks later, I received a delivery notice and went to pick them up. Customs officials were apparently as excited as I was that I was getting them, evidenced by the special envelopes in which they seal things they’ve opened up and rifled through.

When I went to pay my customs fee, I noticed two things wrong. First, there were two shipments, 100 cards each, separate envelopes. Each was declared with the total value of the order. So I paid duty on $80, instead of $40. This was Moo’s fault. Second, one of them was calculated in pounds instead of US dollars (Moo is a British company but their transactions are done in US currency), so I was charged $7 more on that one. This was the fault of customs. A total of $28 extra to claim my order, almost as much as they’re worth, and most of that charged in error.

So when I got home and found that 8 cards had been misprinted from each set, I was quite a bit less happy. To be fair, Moo offered to make it right by sending me two more free sets, but given that I’d already paid $70 or so, and would have to pay again for those sets, I decided not to take them up on it.

See the trend? If I order from out-of-country, and the shipper screws up, I’m the one left holding the bill for fixing that mistake. This is why I don’t order tangible goods online.

I’m not sure there’s anything for retailers to do about this; it’s a government problem, and somehow I don’t see it going away any time soon. But it affects retailers anyway, since I simply won’t order if I know the potential exists for this to happen again.

I doubt it’s unique to my country, I’m sure taxes on items crossing borders is a fairly universal thing. Be thankful if you live in a region where items ordered online aren’t taxed; for those of us on the other side of the fence, your grass is certainly greener.

(And since we’re on the subject, don’t even get me started on PayPal…)

Adrian L says:
October 27, 11h

It sucks being a canuck, doesn’t it?

You forgot to mention eBay. Or any of the other cool not-in-Canada retailers selling all sorts of cool stuff that Candians might want.

Drives me bonkers.

October 27, 11h

The only place I’ve ordered from is Amazon. I’ve never had any problems whatsoever. And between Germany (where the “local” Amazon is located) and Austria, there’s no duty fee at all.

From all the stories I hear, it seems that Canada has it quite the worst of all the western nations.

Sophie says:
October 27, 11h

The only online retailer I’ve ever had problems used Paypal indeed. One thing I ordered on a very small US online shop never showed up.
Apart from that, I’ve been buying physical goods online for about 9 years and no problem.

Here in France, it’s much cheaper to order books in english from amazon (fr|com| than ordering them at the bookshop and going there several times to gather the books as they arrive. I’ve ordered from, US and Australia online stores, without ever having to pay import taxes. It seems the declared value must be pretty high (more than a few 100 euros) to trigger interest in customs officers.

Being in the EU is also very convenient, no customs fees for Crucial memory shipped from the UK, for example.

So the way your country handles international orders seems more to blame than online retail. Maybe your place is quite protectionist.

Janeiro says:
October 27, 11h

I can understand your misfortune… but actually this opinion si ok only if you live in a country where you can find everything. In my case I live in French Guiana (french territories in south america) and there I can find only old fashioned things or if I can find something new (ie ipod 5G) it’s twice the price compare only prices. So for me online store are good thing where I can buy news things for about 7% more expensive that the normal price.

PS : sorry for my poor english

October 27, 11h

Regarding Moo:

I ordered from them a few weeks ago (100 cards), received my order within two weeks (I live in St. Albert, AB), however, my order was delivered right to my mailbox. I didn’t have to pay any sort of customs. Very strange…

PatrickQG says:
October 27, 11h

I haven’t done any online ordering myself here in Canada (for one thing online retailers seem want to only accept North America issued credit cards, which pisses me off constantly), but back in New Zealand the small orders you mention would just fly by customs - they don’t bother collecting GST (12.5%, still less than the 13% total sales tax you get in BC) if the total GST is less than NZD$50 (which means you can get by with up to around NZD$400).

beto says:
October 27, 11h

Being from Costa Rica, I can certainly feel your pain. I pay for a courier service that allows me to own a shipping address in Miami, FL for all US-incoming mail and goods, which sort of minimizes the risk of goods getting lost through international mail. This, however, won’t protect you in case you fall prey to the whims and woes of our arguably corrupt and pain-in-the-butt customs, which won’t think twice to tax almost any personal imports up the wazoo. Tax fees of 60-80% of a package’s total CIF value aren’t uncommon. You can apply for tax exemption twice a year, but the amount limits and paperwork required make it impractical to buy “serious” goods online. God help you if you’re trying to buy exotic electronics, accesories and such online.

I just bought some t-shirts from Threadless (one of the few goods I think won’t give me problems), but truth be told, having gotten hit badly a few times in the past, my enthusiasm for e-commerce isn’t exactly contaguious these days.

October 27, 12h

There are only three kind of things I usually buy online: books, CD’s and DVD’s, mostly at Amazon.

Sometimes CD’s and DVD’s I want are just not available to buy offline, so I turn to Amazon. More than once, Brazilian customs just didn’t taxed me for them, so I consider myself lucky.

Books in Brazil can be imported with no tax at all if is for your own use (if you are not a retailer) so I can order a couple hundred dollars on books and I won’t pay taxes.

The only time amazon sent me two damaged books, they just sent me the whole (3 books) shipment again, and they left me keep the damaged ones.

Because were only scratches, I have two copies of those books (one is the Zen of CSS, oddly enough).

But I avoid to buy any other thing online.

Neil says:
October 27, 12h

Very strange - my experience was identical to Jeff Smith’s. I ordered two sets of 100 Moo cards and they were delivered directly to my mailbox in Toronto - no custom fees whatsoever.

Kenzie says:
October 27, 12h

Are you sure you’re talking about customs fees and not brokerage?

I got burned once on a top for my Jeep a few years ago, getting charged UPS brokerage fees (ransom?) almost equal to the cost of purchase and shipping.

If you can find a U.S. retailer that will ship USPS instead, I think the max brokerage is $5. I haven’t paid brokerage since, and I rarely get charged Duties (taxes).

Kero says:
October 27, 12h

Instead buying from your country is great for us foreigners! I usually buy videogames from a couple of Canada based e-shops: service is stellar, prices much lower than in Europe (where I live) and they usually ship via airmail so shipping is free or a couple of bucks and, surprisingly, goods are delivered here in 3-7 days. In addition, don’t know exactly why, I never paid a cent of customs fees.

October 27, 12h

Dave, you really have some bad luck it seems. I shop on-line all the time and never had any problems. But the customs fees suck, though I’ve somehow avoided them on most (not all) of my purchases.

One thing, though: buying RAM from crucial when you can just go to NCIX ( is crazy. They’re by far the best option to buy RAM locally in Vancouver.

Dave S. says:
October 27, 12h

“Are you sure you’re talking about customs fees and not brokerage?”

Yes. The Crucial order had a bit of brokerage in it, but the bulk was customs. The Moo order was pure customs.

Sara says:
October 27, 13h

I’ve certainly had my fair share of problems from ordering online, including being charged twice the shipping that I was supposed to be charged because an order shipped in two boxes rather than one (despite assurances that everything would be sent in one box). Now I tend to think long and hard before ordering anything from out of the country.

Victoria Pavlova says:
October 27, 14h

I feel for you as I myself was in troubles with customs several times. Here, in Ukraine there are two ways of getting your order - by postal mail (and if the order is under 200 euros, no customs taxes are applied) and by courier (UPS and FedEx go that way for us) and they are subject to customs. So, you have to pay 20-50% of your order price (including delivery) as customs taxes AND 20% of all that sum as VAT. So once my order cost me double price. My only comfort was that fact that there were no local analogue anyway. And regarding post mail - it’s just insecure; thus many online shops just do not deliver to Ukraine.

Tweek says:
October 27, 14h

Canadian Customs seems to be a crapshoot. I’ve placed two orders for t-shirts from Threadless; one got stopped by Customs and the other one didn’t. For what it’s worth, they won’t charge duty on anything with a value under CAD$20.

Recently, I ordered a book of sheet music from the US. I don’t mind so much that I had to pay a $5 handling fee for the privilege of being charged $3 in taxes on the item. It’s the fact that the process delayed the shipment by about three weeks that really bugs me.

October 27, 15h

God almighty, Dave, you might have mentioned this yesterday, by which I mean the day *before* I bought a load of RAM from Crucial. Now I’m worried about it!

October 27, 16h

I also received a set of Moo cards without having to pay customs fees. It sounds like you’ve got some really bad luck Dave.

October 27, 17h

Ordering from America to the UK, I’ve never been hit with customs duties.

I think more online companies need to set up native Canadian stores. Or Canadian customs needs to chill out eh?

Still, I guess all customs duties are aimed at encouraging citizens to spend their monye in their own country. Seems it’s working.

Tuna says:
October 27, 20h

I’ve have not problems ordering from Australia from locations such as the UK, USA and Canada in general. All packages under AUD$250 are not subject to customs duty or local tax.

However if you go over AUD$250 per package, you get slugged for Tax (GST) and Duty and an admin fee (levy) of around AUD$50 for the prilage to pay the extra duty etc. This fees goes to the mail provider (say Fedex) so for me this means that you end up paying $25 tax, $12.50 (I think) duty plus $50 admin fee, as you can see thats $87.50 in incoming fees. just to land it. Moral here is never ship Fedex into Australia. If they ship fedex forget it.

October 27, 22h

I work for a British company, which is actually a small arm of a Canadian firm. We have stuff shipped here all the time. When it’s new stuff, it’s difficult to avoid customs charges.

However, replacements such as your experiences from Crucial and Moo should be marked up as a ‘Warranty Replacement’ - customs cannot and should not charge duty on a replacement for a product you’ve already paid tax on - when any of you have a problem with something you’ve ordered across border - make sure you *telephone* to order a replacement, and demand it be marked up as such.

Mike D. says:
October 27, 22h

Hey, consider it the “at least I’m not ashamed of my country’s leader” tax. Worth every penny.

Off the topic of international shopping but on the topic of RAM, my experience with RAM has been that you should just get the absolute cheapest stuff you can. With how cheap RAM is these days, it’s more cost effective for these companies to just crank out as much RAM as they can and deal with the returned defective sticks as a normal cost of doing business. Meaning, whether you go with Crucial or the cheapest place you can find, there’s a decent chance it’ll be defective so you might as well stick with the cheap. For that, I highly recommend DealRam (dealram [dot] com). A 2 GB chip for a MacBook Pro is $542 right now, while on Crucial it’s $1049 (!!!). The more common 1GBx2 upgrade is $218 at DealRam and $297 at Crucial.

October 27, 23h

“Hey, consider it the “at least I’m not ashamed of my country’s leader” tax. Worth every penny.”

Not sure that one will work for everyone :), at least not for myself.

October 28, 03h

Dave, I’ve got to say that for me, the ordering online experience has been almost the diametric opposite to yours.

I live in Australia, and it’s often cheaper for me to order books (even singles) from Amazon US or UK. So long as I keep the total value of each shipment below AU$400, Australian Customs doesn’t even hold the goods. I’ve been ordering from Amazon almost as long as they’ve been around, and never had a bad experience with them.

I’ve also just got my cards from Moo - 100 with my company logo and 100 with mixed photos - which are perfect. Even down to the little plastic boxes they come in. At such low cost, again, Customs could care less.

Looks like that Canadian thing’s hurting you, eh?

RJ Norris says:
October 28, 07h

if you live near the border, get a private mailbox on the opposite side (ironically, like a box at the ups store, which is NOT a p.o. box, and therefore companies WILL ship to it… even though it acts exactly the SAME as a p.o. box). you’ll have to pay duty (IF it’s over your allotted total from shopping during a trip… if you have a friend to stay with in seattle or some such for a week, you can haul back around $700 duty free, and oddly that’s PER PERSON, so, um bring a friend. ;-) it’s odd that the rules are very specific, though it’s super-easy to work aroudn them. this works if you plan your purchases well enough. not always possible, though, i know.

but the important thing is that YOU become your own broker, and avoid brokerage fees (which marked up a t-shirt i bought from thinkgeek in 2003 to almost CAN$100 after ridiculous UPS brokerage fees and duty). also, if you order from anyone, make sure they deliver either via fedex or usps. UPS has the worst cross-border brokerage and delivery fees on the continent.

by the way, i used to buy from crucial all the time when i was in toronto… some times they have “free shipping” promos, which also apply to canada, which offsets the cost in tax.

but it is a prime headache to order stuff from the u.s. when you’re north of the border. probably the main thing i was not wild about when my wife and i returned to canada, as during the last three years in the u.s., i didn’t even think about it, and just ordered SCADS of stuff delivered straight to my doorstep.

paul says:
October 29, 07h

you know how i feel about paypal… and i get stupidly high customs fees all the time. a friend sent me a FREE shirt last week and i got a $20 customs fee. i didn’t accept the shirt, and had UPS just bring it back. he didn’t pay for shipping anyways, so it doesn’t matter if it was in vein. on principle though, i’m not going to pay a customs fee that’s higher than value of the actual thing being shipping. and that’s not the first time it’s happened too.

dusoft says:
October 30, 03h


the biggest problem is your socialist country laws regarding customs. I am so happy we are now part of EU, so everything from Amazon (at least is free of customs duties.

I just don’t understand how stupid law Canada has - that you have to pay even for importing from US!

Stv. says:
October 30, 12h

Yeah, I find Canada customs totally random Dave. I’ve ordered a bunch of stuff from the states - recently, from Threadless. My first order, 3 shirts. Total value? about $40. No customs fee. My next order, 1 shirt, for $20-ish. And I was charged customs. I’ve been told that Canada will charge customs on commercial goods worth over $15, but I haven’t seen much consistency on that.

I have had luck with getting US vendors to write ‘goods worth $15 CAD’, no matter what it is, or “gift with no commercial value” on it - you often just have to request it, and they’ll do it. I’ve no idea of the legality of that (probably quasi at best), but it seems to work. That being said, buy Canadian! ;)

October 30, 14h

At least you guys got free health care. ;)

Isaac Lin says:
October 30, 21h

I sympathize with the desire for quick gratification – I too used to prefer buying books in brick and mortar stores over online purchases. However, nowadays, the savings available in Canada with Indigo/Chapters or (whose prices on most books somehow always line up) is considerable, and so I have switched to mostly online purchases. Both offer free shipping on purchases over $39.

October 31, 06h

Must admit to having not had the experience of purchasing goods from overseas as yet, and generally what you buy online here in the UK works out cheaper than in the shops. I also have the added plus of I can generally get things quicker by buying online as where I work is in the countryside so by the time I get back to town the shops are shut and I have to wait till the weekend to make any purchases, where as by doing it online, I can have my goods and still have my weekends!

Scott Gledhill says:
October 31, 17h

I believe it’s a bit sad still really that the internet is still so biased towards the United States.

I am an ex-Canuck, now living in Australia where it is cheaper to buy books from Amazon than walk into a book store. (for tech books, we are talking over half price discount).

But there are still sooo many sites that can’t be bothered to adjust forms to accept foreign phone numbers and post codes, or even deal with errors properly being ignorant to the fact that people from countries will access their site and TRY TO ORDER something, despite your little footer ‘shipping options’ that subtely states you don’t ship ‘overseas’ (including Canada or Mexico)

This is not what the internet is about!

Brian G says:
November 02, 13h

As a Canadian it seems like all of the good deals on the internet are definitely “too good to be true”. After moving just outside of Toronto I started getting my weekly comics online from a US store. All was good until the one month that I got charged $68.00 for duty/brokerage from UPS for a $56.00 order of comics.

It angered me so much that I opened up an online comic store…of course now I get to deal with the insanity that is the post office, and the ridiculousness of shipping things to the United States (10 days to get from Toronto to California…unreal).

jessica says:
November 02, 19h

Well what would get you to order something online, like what features, security or mail refunds, better customer service etc etc? I could never buy clothes online because I like to touch feel the material first and try it on but software and other goods why not, if you do not like it or are not happy just return it on your credit card most have a 30 day return policy or more.

kathy says:
November 05, 07h

I have been buying online for years. Had very few problems.

In fact, I find it easier than shopping in local stores. When I wanted to buy a touchpad, I thought in person shopping would be better, but no, it wasn’t. The store did not have any set up for user testing, and they had a very small selection. So I went home & back online.

I’ve bought barrettes from Hong Kong, and mineral supplements from Canada. Selection and prices for both are far superior online.

Benno says:
November 06, 10h

About 6 months ago I decided to buy an iPod nano for my fiance. I shopped around for the best price and ended up going with which is the ‘largest re-seller of mac products in the world’. Long story short it took them 6 weeks to get my the product, double charged me, and lost my order. It was the worst e-commerce experience I’ve ever had.

That being said, I use amazon a lot as well as and have never had a problem and find that I have a much larger range and access to cheaper prices with shipping included. Its the way of the future and we all need to embrace it.

Karina says:
November 06, 15h

I’ve been living in Seattle for 7 years. I believe most Americans don’t realize how expensive handling and postal fees are. Sometimes people pay almost the price of the merchandise they’re buying in those fees. I think it’s outrageous. I’m Brazilian and I’m not used to waste; sorry…

I only buy online if the delivery is free or below 2 or 3 dollars. More than than, patience, I will live without it.

I also hate paying for service fees when I buy tickets, both for concerts and for travelling. When we go to a physical store we don’t pay a “service fee”, it should be the same online. An online store is also a “store” and its maintanance is a business expense. Do I make sense?

Terry says:
November 08, 11h

The biggest problem with selling online is getting the product to the customer by conventional shipping methods. Postal services are over priced if you ask me. If only web browsers had a Star Trek transporter plug-in, we could zap each order to its destination by just putting in the correct co-ordinates. Problem is the Federation would want its 10% GST!

Terry :-)

Mike says:
November 08, 22h

they dont sell everything you might want, but they sell alot of computer stuff, i think they even sell mac components as well.

have ordered three orders from them so far, and i pay more tax than shipping usually, since its from canada, no duties, and with my last order they had a $4.95 shipping deal on for orders over $100, and even though they obviously either took a hit on the shipping, or sent it with a slower, cheaper method, i got that order in 6 days, and they ship from southern ontario, whereas i live in alberta. Considering that this particular order contained a computer case, i’d have to assume they did not make a profit shipping a budget computer case and SEVERAL other parts for $4.95, but they did it, and promptly!

I highly recommend them for any canadian computer component or accessory purchases. They even sell some stuff like toolkits, misc parts/adapters, and i think other electronics as well.

As far as out of country purchases, your right, its a hassle and id never attempt it. Theres a reason why half the stuff on or .ca will not even attempt to ship out of country. It sucks, i wanted to get a copy of that hilarious old Mr T. movie, but they only ship to the USA :(

David D. says:
November 13, 12h

I thought I was the only one who ran into this kind of trouble after I moved here from the US!

It’s kind of ironic that one of the most wired and educated countries seems to far behind when it comes to online commerce! Those duties are sort of a ‘no longer stuck under the regime of G. W. Bush’ tax, but there seems to be no good reason for them. Is Customs performing a valuable service for which they are charging? I’m all for taxes (hence the reason my views and that of the current administration are out of sync) when they actually end up in something I can see at the other end (a park, a school system, health care, mass transit, etc.). Are the duties and other charges doing any good, or are they merely some method of keeping trade to local businesses more competitive? (Something I’m not necessarily as thrilled with…)

November 22, 09h

I feel for all of you that live in Canada! One of the best things about the internet is being able to buy things a lot easier, christmas shopping and actually going to a shop? Forget it, i’d rather eat at McDonalds!
I’m sure there are problems all over the world but i’ve ordered goods from the US and Canada and never had any customs problems or indeed delays or non-arrivals. Stuff here (UK) is cheaper to buy on the internet, stores mark CD’s up by at least £2-£3 a go, DVD’s by as much as £5.
Seems a shame the Government is responsible for ruining your online shopping happiness but then again they generally ruin most things so i guess its to be expected..

Stacy says:
November 30, 07h

I agree with you on this! Of course I do make exceptions for buying things online that are unique and you can’t get in stores. (or anywhere else short of ebay) ie. Tshirts!