How to shop smarter online during a pandemic

Posted: 20 July 2020 12:30 pm

Young man and woman with coffee and computer sitting at the table.

Shopping from overseas is starting to make sense again, but avoid these traps to make sure you're getting the best value.

It is a truth universally acknowledged: buying online from overseas is often cheaper than buying from an Australian site, even with delivery costs factored in. However, that's been a less appealing option for many during the coronavirus pandemic. Delivery times have blown out, and some sellers have stopped deliveries altogether.

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That won't change overnight, but we are starting to see overseas deliveries gradually speed up. In part, that's because some passenger planes are being converted for freight during global travel bans. So shopping globally can still be a good way to score bargains, but you need to do it carefully. Here are five key areas to think about so you truly get the best deal.

Always compare the total price

This rule hasn't changed. If you're comparing a local price to an overseas one, make sure you've performed these two checks:

  • Convert the overseas price into Australian dollars if necessary. Some stores will detect your location and show an AUD$ price, but many won't.
  • Get an accurate shipping cost. That will often mean adding the item to your cart and progressing partway through the checkout. If "free" shipping is on offer, it may well be by sea, which means waiting months. That's not directly comparable to Express Post within Australia.

Bonus tip: make sure you're actually comparing identical products. With electronics, check the full model number. Similar-looking devices can have different components under the hood.

Think about payment fees

One often-overlooked factor when shopping from online sites overseas is that your credit card may charge you fees if you make a purchase in a currency other than Australian dollars. Typically, this is a percentage of the total charge, often around 2–3%. That might not sound like much, but on a $200 purchase, that would be an extra $6.

You can avoid this problem by using a card such as the Skye Mastercard which doesn't charge transaction fees for overseas purchases. If you're shopping regularly from overseas, avoiding those fees can make a big difference.

Man opening parcel on floor.

Understand what the delivery window is

Pre-pandemic, it was possible to order goods into Australia from Hong Kong and have them arrive within a week. That's no longer the case. Many online stores will provide an estimate of delivery time, but it's just that: an estimate. With freight conditions changing rapidly, those timings can easily go awry.

Shopping overseas doesn't make sense for stuff you need urgently. I'd add seven days to whatever date estimate you get, whether it's a local or an overseas store. Then decide if that's OK for what you're buying. That way, if it's on time, you'll be pleased, and if it's a little late, you won't be surprised.

Work out how you're going to pay for it

If your purchase is expensive but you're not expecting it to arrive for a month or two, it can be galling to feel like you have to pay for it now. Having an option to pay it off over time can be helpful. Locally, that might mean using a buy now pay later service, but those often won't be available to Australian customers.

One option to consider is taking advantage of your credit card's interest-free days. For instance, the Skye Mastercard offers up to 110 days interest-free. That gives you time to pay off your purchase. Make sure you do pay it off in full though; if you have to end up paying high interest rates on your purchase, the savings from buying overseas will quickly evaporate.

A similar alternative is to use a card which allows you to make instalment payments without paying interest over a longer period. The Skye Mastercard has that feature too, with the option to spread payments out over 9, 12 or 15 months for purchases of $250 or more. However, that does involve an establishment fee of between 3% and 5%.

Mature woman getting package from delivery person during pandemic. Courier guy delivers parcel to a woman at home during quarantine.

Make sure you can receive your package safely

There's little risk of contracting COVID-19 from packages sent through the mail. The key element is minimising contact with your delivery person.

Many couriers and delivery services are taking a zero-contact approach, dropping parcels off and photographing them rather than requiring signatures. If you're working from home, that works well. If you are travelling to work, see if you can use a parcel locker or other drop-off service to minimise human contact when picking up your items.

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