Why fly to the States? A Carrie-style shopping spree is just a click away

Britons are flocking to New York for bargains, says Jackie Hunter. But is cyberspace a much better bet?
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The Independent Online

Is it a coincidence that Sex and the City, the shopaholic's favourite nature documentary, is ending at a time when the US dollar is at its lowest ebb in more than a decade?

Is it a coincidence that Sex and the City, the shopaholic's favourite nature documentary, is ending at a time when the US dollar is at its lowest ebb in more than a decade?

That prolonged love affair between the New York gal and her $400 shoes is well and truly over for now. But while the Carrie Bradshaw manqués of Manhattan are crying all the way to the thrift shop, their UK counterparts are busy swapping sterling for greenbacks and sprinting towards Heathrow's departure gates: with the exchange rate at $1.86 per £1, a Stateside shopping spree has not been this much of a bargain for Britons since 1992. Lastminute.com reports that it sold 70 per cent more flights to New York in January than it did in the pre-Christmas peak shopping season.

With judicious searching, you'll find that flights and accommodation in the States are good value right now. A fortnight ago I paid £450 a head for two British Airways return flights plus a three-night stay at the five-star Waldorf Astoria in mid-March, all sourced on the internet. It's an unbelievably good deal. We may end up sleeping in a glorified laundry cupboard next to the lift shaft, but for that price and location I shan't complain too loudly.

For some shoppers, however, that £450 would represent a wholly unnecessary expenditure. Their argument is, why spend time and money on flights and hotels, when you could still take advantage of the weak dollar by staying at home and shopping on US-based websites, and pay a fraction of those travel costs to have them shipped to your door? That's one option we didn't have back in 1992.

Any reluctance we may have harboured about shopping in cyberspace would appear to have diminished dramatically in the past two years. During 2003, more than 20 million of us spent an average £475 per person online; almost double the previous year. With 50 per cent of UK homes now having internet access, confidence and sales are increasing at an impressive rate. According to James Roper, a co-founder and now chief executive of IMRG, the trade body representing online retailers in Britain, this trend is set to continue on its upward trajectory.

Before embarking on a transatlantic internet shopping binge, most of us will ask questions. Is this really a good way of finding genuine bargains, or are there hidden costs? Will it be complicated to arrange shipping overseas? Is the online payment system secure? Will I ever see the goods I'm paying for and, if not, am I protected?

Good websites should address and answer any such queries clearly and upfront. Look at each site's payment, terms and conditions and shipping/delivery information. Many American websites don't ship goods outside the US or Canada, so check this first or you may be wasting valuable shopping time.

Where to start? Using a search engine that trawls US websites as well as British-based ones (Google, for example), simply try keying in any brand names you fancy. Look for American websites that shout the words "discount" and "bargain" and dig in to see if you can find what you're after or spot a hidden gem. Unsophisticated, perhaps, but it's as good a starting point as any.

The best choice of goods is in the leisure arena: home entertainment and gadgets; books; leather accessories; fashion, jewellery and cosmetics. The obvious brands to look for are American ones: Tommy Hilfiger, Calvin Klein, Donna Karan, Estee Lauder, Coach and so on. If you persist, there's a strong chance you'll spot something that breaks down your resistance and, a few days later, lands on your doorstep.

You'll soon realise it's not a fast process, however, but rather like peeling a gigantic onion. If you're lucky, you may only have to labour for a few seconds to get a pleasing result; but on the other hand you could spend the best part of an hour paring away, only to find there's nothing but mouldy old rubbish underneath. Tears of frustration may follow.

If there's one thing you can be sure of when it comes to internet navigation, however, it's that some bright spark on the inside has already devised a more efficient way of doing what you're trying to do.

I had been tipped off about a website called bizrate.com, which does the initial leg-work for you. It's similar to using a personal shopper in a department store: tell it what you're looking for (jeans, a Palm Pilot, a Kate Spade handbag) and it will come back to you with a list of US websites on which you are more likely than not to find such items, and where they are most competitively priced.

Once you've found your booty, you'll need a calculator to tot up the shipping costs and any VAT or duty you're likely to pay on delivery, plus a foolproof currency converter - I used www.oanda.com - to ascertain the cost in sterling.

It goes without saying that the first thing you should look for on a shopping website is a guarantee of secure transactions, which is generally indicated by a padlock symbol.

Pay with a credit card, not a debit card, because if anything goes wrong with the goods or delivery from America you are not protected by EU consumer laws, but at least the money won't have left your bank account straight away, and you may have a safety net if your credit-card purchases are insured. Reputable sites will also list a customer services telephone number.

One happy customer is William Gallagher, 35, a chartered accountant living in east London. He shops on US websites to save money on regular purchases. "I buy American versions of DVDs and CDs. I only pay around £8 for a new album. I can also get big American movies for my multi-region DVD player before they're released here," he says.

He used to be something of an online-shopping addict, but now he keeps purchases occasional and under £30 to minimise duty charges. He says: "There also seems to be a pretty good customer-service policy. I once bought a CD that arrived scratched, so I called the company and, instead of asking me to return it, they simply sent me a replacement one within a couple of days."

James Roper of IMRG, however, is unlikely to be tempted. "It's a total fallacy that [for Britons] shopping on US-based websites is easy and good value for money," he says. "You can spend an awful lot of time trying to buy something, only to find that most websites won't ship outside the US because the paperwork involved is too complicated. I know shippers who have warehouses full of stuff from overseas, waiting to be delivered. And even if you get the goods you want, you can sometimes be landed with a £50 bill on top for taxes, duty, customs, handling charges, whatever. I'd rather get on a plane to New York and enjoy a weekend browsing the shops and sights."

I'm inclined to side with Mr Roper. There may be genuine bargains to be had if you're a hardened shopper with patience and a good head for figures: but given a choice between shopping in cyberspace or on Fifth Avenue, I'll take Manhattan, thanks.



What: Finding Nemo (multi-region format)

US price: www.playusa.com: £13 inc shipping

UK price: local HMV £16.99


What: Polo Ralph Lauren men's cotton chinos

Where from: www.sierratradingpost.com

US price: £32.10 inc shipping

UK price: £55

Verdict: Not a good-looking website, with masses of stock to trawl through, but the shipping information and cost were fairly easy to establish.


What: Sony DCR TRV33 Camcorder

Where from: www.wolfcamera.com

US price: £533.71 inc shipping

UK price: £679

Verdict: I had problems proceeding through checkout, but rang the website's customer service department in the US, who confirmed the price and shipping cost with no problem.

* CD

What: Norah Jones Feels Like Home

Where from: www.playusa.com

US price: $17.49 inc free shipping (£9.35)

UK price: £11.99

Verdict: This is a really user-friendly website with free shipping, which seems too good to be true, but users say it's legitimate and reliable. CDs are better bargains than DVDs, but you can get films on DVD months before they're available in Britain.


What: Marc by Marc Jacobs eau de parfum spray 1.7fl oz (approx 50ml)

Where from: www.perfumestation.com

US price: £27.70 inc shipping

UK price: £49 for 50ml

We say: The shipping seemed expensive for one item (£8.15), but in spite of this the total cost was far lower than in Britain.


What: Absolute Friends by John Le Carre (hardback edition, 455pp)

Where from: www.strandbooks.com

US price: £13.42 inc shipping, delivered by surface mail in 8 to 12 weeks (additional items in same delivery charged at £1.08 each).

UK price: £16.99.

Verdict: Strand Books is a real New York store that boasts an impressive 'eight miles of books'. Their well-run website offers a vast choice in every genre at extremely competitive prices, and the shipping rate is fixed.

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