Importing
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Even if equipment in the USA may look way cheaper at a first glance, beware of the charges you got to pay at the customs and the additional costs arising out of paying with an international money order! You often have to add some 25% to the price before the goods are here. Typically, goods at online auctions are some 15-35% cheaper than in stores.

Click for 1024 x 768
Stuff on a table at a market in the city of Villingen, Germany. July 1999.
Nikon F5, Nikkor AF 20mm/2.8D on Fujichrome Velvia.

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Shopping for pearls at online auctions in the USA

Online auctions are a thrill. Ok, granted, I never have been into auctions before; thought it was something for bored folks with lots of money to spend on things they didn't really wanted nor needed in the first place.

The internet has changed my mind - now I know I need things.

I have now been selling and buying a lot of minor things on different online auctions, such as the german online auction alando [e], or at the american pendant "eBay" [e].

So far, my experiences as a buyer has mostly been ok (except for a lady who got away with 60 DM without ever shipping the goods). As a seller I wish I sometimes never had thought about putting the goods for sale in the first place; it can happen that you get very little to nothing for the stuff and then you might be bound to sell it anyway (this is the case on alando, on eBay you can put up a "reserved price" and if it's not met, you're not bound to sell). Anyways...

What's the price difference between US online auctions and buying the stuff regularly in Europe?

I can't speak for the whole of Europe here nor of all of the online auctions in the States. It looks though like it's normally between 20-40% cheaper in the USA - before any taxes, shipping, insurance and other charges have been added.


The Huefinger Heimattage. Click for 800 x 600 picture.

Children parading in folklore clothing on the "Heimattage" in our little city Huefingen/Germany 1995.
Nikon F-401, AF Nikkor 35-70 cheapo-zoom on Agfa Ultra ISO 50.


Before placing the bid

Let's talk buying in the US of A. eBay has a lot of Nikon stuff on sale. Mostly it's over 1.000 items(!) You can find lots of lenses there, mainly older ones, but also lots of new stuff. Camera bodies are also plentiful (as I checked today, May 21st 1999, there were four F5's and six F100's, all in excellent condition for sale).

Most sellers starts with a redicilously low price, such as 1 USD or 9,90 USD or so. They then hope that lots of people will bid on their goods (and people do - you can easily find goods with bids from over one hundred individuals). The price rapidly increases and you will very likely never be able to get, let's say a fully functional F90X for something like 200 USD (that would be a bargain!).

The sellers are often companies (even if eBay is supposedly a "private-to-private" auction) and they dump a lot of their used stuff on eBay. I'm not sure if what they sell sometimes might be "grey market" equipment, but I guess so. AFAI understood it, "grey market" means "not through normal sales/distribution channels". This doesn't equal to illegal stuff. Most sellers seems serious to me. There are crooks out there though. If you feel insecure, check out the neighbor to neighbor area [e] at Philip Greenspun's photo.net [e], where a lot of sellers and buyers are listed with comments from other individuals (mainly praises, but also beware comments).

These are a couple of the things I look at when buying at eBay

1. Is the price interesting? See the price calculation scheme below. If it's not, I don't need to bother about this item.

2. Is the seller willing to ship to Europe? Some folks don't want to sell their stuff outside of the USA.

3. What kind of rating does the seller has? (they are rated by former buyers). I would be a bit wary about someone selling expensive equipment with no history record available. Most sellers have a huge rating record though.

4. How is the feedback on this seller? (the buyers sends feedback on the sellers).

5. Is a picture provided? I like pictures of the items I am about to buy. It's a plus if there are close up shots of items so one might be able to detect dents and scratches etc.

6. If there's anything I want to know about the item which isn't described, I send the seller a short e-mail with the questions before placing any bid.

Placing the bid

If the item looks good after the above evaluation, I might place a bid - if I am seriously interested in it. I normally don't place a bid much higher than the current maximum bid. This means that I can get a screen telling me that I'm outbid directly after placing it. This is because many people have their "robots" or "agents" automatically increasing their bids for them.

If I'm outbid - and if I'm not too emotional about the whole affair - I rethink the whole thing before placing a new bid. It's easy to end up bidding on stuff which is no more interesting - compared to the prices here in Europe.


Christmas market in Villingen. Click for 1024 x 768
Christmas market in the city of Villingen, southern Germany. December 1999.
Nikon F5, Nikkor AF 50mm/1.4 on Fujichrome Provia
100F.

After the bid

Calculating the costs

Hey! You should have done this before placing the bid.

Generally, there are a lot of costs involved which one easily forgets. The costs involve:

1. Import tax
2. Value added tax (VAT, "Umsatzsteuer")
3. General customs fee
4. Costs of having an international money order issued
5. Shipping and insurance

Import tax
The height depends on the type of goods your importing. It's 6,2% of the declared value on 35mm SLR cameras and accessories in Germany.

Value added tax
It's your country's VAT (Umsatzsteuer, Moms etc.) on the declared value.

General customs fee
Normally this shouldn't be much. I had to pay some DM 15,- on a lens worth DM 800,- and DM 35,- for the F5 declared at close to DM 3000,-

Costs of having an international money order issued
It's normally way easier - and cheaper - if the seller is willing to accept a credit card. If the seller accepts credit cards (smaller companies often do) they normally only accept MasterCard or Visa. American Express is not popular, since they charge an additional fee from the seller for each transaction. Individuals acting privately normally don't accept any credit cards, and then it gets more expensive. You are then more or less bound to have an international money order issued.

Most US folks seems to like the Western Union (a bank) type of money orders. I guess the major reason is that they can cash them all over the place and they are really safe.

For the money order of 1.625 USD, I had to pay some DM 120,- in fees. For the 425 USD lens, it was about DM 65,- in fees. I used Western Union money orders for both. To issue such an order, you can simply walk in to your local post office (in Germany) or to certain stores which are able to issue them. E.g. in Sweden, a lot of tobacco stores can issue Western Union money orders. You need the name and address of the person you're sending the order to.

After you have payed the amount plus the fee, you get a Western Union authorization ID. You must now notify the seller of this ID, easiest way being via e-mail. The seller can now, normally within two days, go to a Western Union affiliate, bring his ID card and mention the authorization ID to receive the cash.

Shipping and insurance

It's not that steep I think. For the 425 USD lens, it was 25 USD with the US Post as Express delivery (some 400g) incl. insurance. For the F5 it was significantly more, some 87 USD for 1kg with the UPS as Express, also insured at 1.625 USD. I don't think I would like to ship anything without having it insured.

So, the calculation for a body bought (and declared) for let's say 1.000 USD would be:

1. 4,2% import tax. Makes 42 USD.
2. Value added tax. Is 16% in Germany, makes 160 USD.
3. General custom fees. Probably in the region of 10 USD in Germany.
4. Having an international money order issued. Probably around 40 USD.
5. Shipping and insurance. Probably looking at some additional 40 USD.

In all, your 1.000 USD body, is now of a sudden worth some 1.252 USD - anyway to you. This would be an increase of some 25%. As you can easily figure out, if the original purchase price was only 25% lower than the comparable price in your own country, you didn't make a deal.

Low value items, I think this is below DM 400,- in Germany, are typically charged with 13,5% (in Germany) of the declared value, i.e. not the 20,2% as in the above calculation.

Now, you have paid for the item, you know the seller got the money, and you're eagerly waiting for it to arrive. I didn't have any problems at all with the sellers so far, and it was really a pleasure to deal with them e-mail wise. The americans are normally very helpful.

But I don't need no customs!

1. You do. If you try to get the goods in, being declared redicilously low, let's say in the box there's a Leica R8 and it's declared for 100 USD and on the custom's slip the friendly seller wrote "broken, old Kodak Instamatic". It might very well happen that the scan (yes, most customs have X-ray) detects the beautiful R8 in it and one of the fellows at a monitor says to himself "well, that's no Kodak Instamatic". Now, if they open up the parcel, they might very well send it back, stating that it was not "declared correctly" - anyway in Germany.

2. Even if your friendly seller writes "old lense, gift, worth 150 USD, not for resale" on the custom's slip. It's likely that your efficient, privatedly owned carrier (i.e. UPS et al), does the custom work for you, i.e. you simply receive a small slip attached on the box, stating "you will receive an invoice for custom charges in the next week or two". Beware that UPS may also charge you some DM 75,- for "expedition charges" plus for additional shipping if you decide that you want them to send the goods to a custom office in your vicinity. This added some DM 135,- to the price of the 1kg "heavy" F5 parcel.

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All images and text on this page are (C) Copyright by Bo Stahlbrandt 1999, 2000.