OPINION: Be clear on or stay clear of Sapo ‘clearance fee’

Until recently, if you bought a small item from a foreign-based online shopping site – an item of costume jewellery, for example – you’d find a compact padded envelope in your postbox.

Not any more – the SA Post Office (Sapo) has in recent months started implementing a handling or “clearance fee” on all parcels – gifts and purchased items – coming in from overseas: R24 for a very small one and R48 for larger one.

Clearance fees are not a new development, says the Post Office’s mail operations head Mark van Rensburg. They were introduced in the 2011-12 financial year and since “been incorporated in the Post Office’s rates booklet”.

So what are they for? “To cover costs incurred in clearing the parcel on behalf of the recipient.”

Why don’t other countries charge them? Well, actually, some do, Van Rensburg pointed out.

“The Universal Postal Union gives its members the option to apply this principle at their own discretion. A quick look at the websites of the Irish, Swiss, Dutch, Canadian and Czech postal administrations shows that they all impose clearance fees for items above a certain value, which differs from one country to the next.”

Why have clearance fees suddenly been imposed by the Post Office this year, and not since 2011 when they were supposedly introduced?

“The clearance fee is now applied consistently because it is built into the assessment system and no longer depends on the knowledge of individual employees,” Van Rensburg said.

Social media sites are buzzing with posts by outraged online shoppers who’ve ordered from foreign sites and been “hit” with unexpected clearance fee charges.

And here’s the thing – if you order several items from the same site at the same time, they’ll most likely be sent separately, with the result that those fees add up to a sizeable sum.

Melanie Beach of Pennington on the KwaZulu-Natal south coast discovered that when she ordered five items from the online retailer Wish – a dress, a pack of nail buffers, a pack of beads, a tablet cover and a necklace.

All five were sent in separate, mostly small parcels, and she was charged a clearance fee on each, totaling “a ridiculous” R216.

“It’s certainly put me off shopping from that site,” she said.

Bronwyn Lavender posted on Facebook: “Just a heads-up to my fellow online shopping addicts who order from overseas: our beloved Post Office has decided to attach a R24 charge on to every item; it’s ludicrous!

“I now get 10 collection slips in my postbox instead of the small packets being popped into the postbox by the postman.

“The postmaster was also amazed and predicted that people are going to stop ordering.”

Carol Lane said she paid a total of R144 for several Wish orders – all of which comfortably fitted into her handbag.

That’s on top of a “shipping” fee.

Note: the clearance fee only applies to parcels from overseas.

If you are charged it when collecting a parcel sent from elsewhere in South Africa – as was reported to me last week – inform the postmaster and refuse to pay it.

And beware – some sites, such as Amazon, include the customs and VAT payable to the South African authorities in their “shipping” fee, but others do not.

As reported in this column recently, Vina Hayden of Port Elizabeth was quoted a price of R430 for a set of aqua dumbbells on the site of UK-based “international” retailer Fruugo, “including shipping” and was made to pay customs duty of R115 when she went to collect the parcel at her post office.

To avoid surprises at the post office counter, make no assumptions when you’re shopping online – seek out and read the terms and conditions on every online retailer’s website.

The Post Office says:

In order to qualify as a gift, in the eyes of the Post Office, a parcel sent from overseas must have a declared value of no more than the equivalent of R1400 – that’s roughly US $104, £79, à88, and Aus $133.

But beware – perfume, wine, spirits and tobacco goods are never free of customs duties and tax – gift or not.

And clearance fees are payable on gifts too, so there’s still no such thing as a free gift if it’s posted to you from a foreign country. You will have to pay R24 or R48, depending on the package’s size.

And if your loved one overseas wants you to get your hands on their posted gift before Christmas, they must get it to their post office as soon as possible, even if they are sending it via airmail.

That’s because thanks to a huge increase in South Africans buying goods from foreign-based online retail sites, there’s a backlog and parcels are taking six weeks to two months to get to recipients’ local post offices.

If you're intending to send Christmas gifts to your loved ones overseas, the cut-off for airmailed parcels is December 8 and the cut-off for surface mail was last Friday.


E-mail: consumer@knowler.co.za

Twitter: @wendyknowler

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