“We want to spare consumers from unpleasant surprises”

Communications advisor Brigitte Janssen explains how and why Customs informs the public about the changing regulations regarding online shopping.

From 1 July onwards, a new European VAT regime is applicable to e-commerce businesses. This affects consumers too. Anyone shopping at webshops outside the EU will from now on always pay VAT – also on purchases up to € 22. In order to protect them from these kinds of surprises, Customs informs Dutch internet shoppers about the changed rules. Communication advisor Brigitte Janssen explains how the administration cooperates with the industry.

Who is the Customs information campaign targeting?
“Internet shoppers between the ages of 15 and 55. In order to gain more insight into the online shopping behaviour of the Dutch, we commissioned a study. This showed that it is this age group that buys most commodities outside of the EU. And that young people under 18 buy many cheap products, such as products from China. We are still waiting for the results of the campaign’s impact study. But we have received quite a lot of media attention so far. In early June, we launched a nationwide radio commercial. It can for instance be heard on Radio 538. We can also be found online a lot, including on Marktplaats.nl and NU.nl. But also on social media, like Instagram, Snapchat and Facebook. We in particular try to reach out to young people. In addition, the NOS news programme paid attention to the subject, as did the popular magazine Linda and other national and regional media. The counter now stands at over 100 articles.”

When did you decide to inform consumers in this way?
“At the end of 2014, we ran a combined online and radio campaign for the first time to inform citizens about this topic. Since then, the number of online purchases has increased rapidly. That is why Customs has been conducting an annual campaign on internet purchases since 2019 – to inform consumers about import rules and additional costs. We did already have a well-visited special landing page for consumers on our website. The changes that would be effective from 1 July 2021 prompted us to broaden and intensify the campaign in June. The means of communication have been adapted to the new situation. The information on the landing page has been modified, for example. We also made use of new media, specifically targeting young people.”

What can be found on this landing page?
“You can read about all the extra costs that may apply when ordering from outside the EU, for instance. It also lists the VAT rates that apply to, for example, laptops, books and clothing. In addition, you will find tips on how to check where a webshop is actually located. Our research showed that 35% of consumers only discovered that the webshop was located outside of the EU after placing an order. We also received many questions from consumers about purchases from the UK. Many people did not realise that Brexit meant that the UK has exited the EU. We will now explain this in more detail. We also provide a virtual assistant to answer your questions. On average, this virtual assistant handles some 300 questions per month. The company that manages the virtual assistant for us evaluates all incoming requests. The virtual assistant is upgraded, expanded and updated based on the input provided. We also input the questions received via the Customs Information Line to do so, by the by. One question many consumers asked was whether the new rules also apply to goods ordered in June and delivered in July. The answer in this case is: the date the shipment is imported into the Netherlands is leading.”

Are consumers well informed about the additional costs, in your opinion?
“The most recent campaign evaluation shows that the target group is relatively well informed. The level of knowledge about additional costs for a purchase over € 22, for example, was 92% in 2019. However, there are still consumers who are unpleasantly surprised when they are confronted with – high – additional costs. This may indicate that they know the rules, but are unable to translate them into their own shopping behaviour. Furthermore, the concept test of the new campaign showed that everyone had their own interpretation of the term ‘additional costs’. One consumer thought it was about shipping costs. Another said, after we gave a suggestion, that this could also comprise customs fees: ‘Oh, you mean I have to pay customs officials at Schiphol for the goods I have brought from abroad…’ In short, the term ‘additional costs’ was not precise enough. We are now trying to explain things even more clearly and to tell consumers how to avoid unexpected additional costs.”

Should webshops themselves provide information on this topic?
“Yes, it is also in their interest – and that of postal and courier companies – that consumers are informed about additional costs and delivery times. Consider the clearance charges, for example. We can tell you why they apply, but we cannot calculate them to two decimal places for a consumer. Because that differs per postal company. The same goes for the question of whether you do not have to pay customs clearance charges if you do not accept a parcel. Of course, this is a topic people will have questions about. This is why it is very positive that PostNL, DHL and the webshops provide their customers with extra information about the new regulations and clearance costs. We have also consulted with them and other stakeholders in our preparations, including by way of the Customs-Business Consultation. This is the message we are going to tell – what do you think, what are you going to do? This allows us to complement our activities. It also makes sure that the consumer is able to decide in advance whether they believe the price is worth it. After all, they want to know what their total costs are and dislike being faced with unexpected costs later.”

But all things considered, it is true that the consumer will have to pay more.
“That’s right. If you used to buy something from AliExpress for four euros, while you now have to pay six euros or more, it naturally becomes less attractive. And you might also have to pay a clearance fee. But we do explain why these costs are charged. Prior to 1 July, entrepreneurs in the EU, unlike those in countries outside the EU, had to charge on the VAT. As a result, their products were more expensive. The new regulations mean that this unfair competition has been stopped. It turns out that a large majority – over 65 per cent – of citizens agree with this change.”

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