Duty dulls dollar bargains: The problem with shopping in the US is coming home again, says Vivien Goldsmith

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The Independent Online
IF you were quick you could have got dollars 2 to the pound, but even at dollars 1.98 shopping in the US looks like terrific value.

British Airways is promoting shopping trips by highlighting the savings to be had by shopping transatlantic. For instance there is a 59 per cent saving on a Braun Universal Shaver priced at pounds 49.99 in the UK, or a 49 per cent saving on an pounds 18 bottle of Clinique moisturiser.

But this takes no account of the duty that ought to be paid on the way back in. If all the taxes are paid on a pair of leather trainers, for example, they could end up being more expensive than if bought in Britain.

The allowance for bringing back goods from non-EC countries is just pounds 32 - 45 ecus. It has been stuck at this level since 1987, when it was raised from pounds 25.

A plan for regular increases in the levels, which are negotiated by the European Commission, was never put into operation. Although the UK would like the level raised, other countries are opposed. The limit for EC countries is currently pounds 400, and from next year there will be no limit at all.

Travellers returning with armfuls of goods have to pay VAT on most things, plus other taxes including customs duty and excise duty on beer, spirits and tobacco.

The shaver, for instance, bears customs duty at 4.5 per cent and VAT at 17.5 per cent on top of that. The moisturiser would come under the category of 'toilet cream, lipstick, rouge, greasepaint, hair and face lotions and lip glosses', which bears a customs duty of 6.6 per cent, plus VAT.

Some customs duties can be quite steep. Knitted or woven clothes and underwear, music centres and portable cassette radios bear a 14 per cent duty. But books bear no duty or VAT.

A spokesman for Customs & Excise said that wearing clothes or using the soap (6.9 per cent duty) would not wipe out liability to duty. 'But we are not going to be silly about a half-used bottle of shampoo.

'These things are not a high priority. Drugs and things that are not supposed to be brought into the country, together with blatant abuses, such as bringing in an armful of video recorders, would really concern us.'

He said that British Airways had been 'a bit naughty' in failing to mention duty when promoting shopping trips to the US. 'We can turn a blind eye to two or three novels in your handbag (which do not carry any duty anyway), but not to two or three bags from Macy's'

If you are caught smuggling undeclared goods, VAT and duty will be charged on everything and you lose your pounds 32 allowance, and there will also be a penalty of around 50 per cent extra duty to pay.

If you cannot produce receipts you will have to accept Customs' valuation.

----------------------------------------------------------------------- SHOPPING IN NEW YORK ----------------------------------------------------------------------- Net saving New York London Saving Duty VAT pounds/ dollars pounds percent percent percent percent ----------------------------------------------------------------------- Braun Universal Shaver 40.55 49.99 59 4.5 17.5 24.85/50 ----------------------------------------------------------------------- Microsoft Windows (work) softwear 160 169.99 52 free 17.5 75.05/44 ----------------------------------------------------------------------- Clinique Moisturiser 18 18 49 6.6 17.5 6.62/36 ----------------------------------------------------------------------- Compact Disc 14.99 12.99 41 4.9 17.5 3.66/28 ----------------------------------------------------------------------- Trek Mountain Bike (820) 387.72 299.95 34 17.9 17.5 28.95/9.65 ----------------------------------------------------------------------- Canon Sureshot Max Camera 102.60 69.99 26 7.2 17.5 4.72/6.74

----------------------------------------------------------------------- Reebok STEP ladies trainers 85.32 49.99 14 8 17.5 -4.69/-9 ----------------------------------------------------------------------- (Conversion at dollars 1.98 to the pound) -----------------------------------------------------------------------

(Photograph omitted)

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