Gifts sent abroad can escape airmail costs: Flying a present overseas is not a cheap way to spread cheer

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THE LAST Christmas posting dates for surface mail abroad have passed, and airmail deadlines are approaching fast: tomorrow is the last day for the United States, while mail for Australia and New Zealand should be sent by Wednesday.

Airmail is likely to be an expensive way of getting presents to family and friends abroad. For anyone prepared to use a little initiative, there are cheaper methods.

The growing internationalisation of retailing helps. Some gift voucher schemes operated by British shops are valid for use in shops abroad.

Body Shop, for example, has about 1,000 shops worldwide, including 145 outlets in the US, 105 in Canada and 40 in Australia. 'Vouchers can be redeemed anywhere in the world. It's not something we make a big thing about, but it is used occasionally by customers,' said a Body Shop spokeswoman. Sterling vouchers are converted to local currency by the shop making the redemption.

Marks & Spencer's vouchers are also valid internationally. 'They are exchangeable in our stores in France, Belgium, Spain, Holland and Hong Kong and in our franchise stores in places like Bangkok,' said an M&S spokeswoman. The M&S-owned Brooks Brothers Stores in the US do not accept them, however.

The arrangement is marketed primarily at customers abroad wanting to send gifts to Britain. 'We have to be careful. In certain countries, it's actually considered offensive to send a gift voucher,' she said.

Other familiar high-street companies are not so flexible. W H Smith has a network of newsagents in north America, but its UK-issued gift vouchers cannot be used there. A spokesman for the company gave currency exchange difficulties as the reason. Boots recently pulled out of the Canadian market, and now operates solely in Britain.

Thomas Cook offers its Worldwide Travel Vouchers, which can be bought in its 350 shops in Britain and exchanged in 2,000 shops worldwide. The vouchers can be used to pay or part-pay for travel packages or air flights (a way, perhaps, to contribute to the cost of family reunions), but cannot be exchanged for currency or travellers cheques.

A more interesting alternative to vouchers, perhaps, could be to arrange for gifts to be delivered direct to friends overseas. Interflora has for many years operated an international flower-ordering service, for which it currently charges a handling and delivery fee of pounds 6.85. Most countries with retail florist networks participate. 'We found three florists in Moscow, though if you want to send flowers to Siberia it might be rather difficult,' says Interflora's Jennifer Morris. Interflora has its own form of currency, the 'fleurin', to facilitate international ordering.

A taste of genuine American home-shopping is available to those computer users in Britain who have joined the US- based on-line service CompuServe. In exchange for credit card details (UK credit cards are fine), retailers in CompuServe's 'Electronic Mall' will deliver advertised goods to addresses in the US (and, in some instances, to Canada and elsewhere). Current gift ideas range from Gimmee Jimmy's Christmas Cookie Box at dollars 29.95 ( pounds 20), a Bulgarian Onion Pot (dollars 21.99) and - from New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art - a book of Monet's favourite recipes (dollars 26.95).

CompuServe, which has more than a million subscribers in the US, has recently begun to market its services in Britain and now claims 28,000 UK users.

Anyone with a credit card and access to the right international telephone directory can, in theory, order goods direct from suppliers, without the need for an electronic interface like CompuServe. However, British credit card companies are reluctant to accept that their obligations under the Consumer Credit Act extend to orders placed abroad. If you encounter problems with ordered gifts, you may have difficulties in resolving them.

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