If you're a regular reader, you're probably aware that I'm a bit of a geek, and I like games of all types. I love computer RPGs, I have a massive collection of board games, and I regularly play Magic: the Gathering (sometimes competitively, although most often casually, and I don't even have the decency to be ashamed of it).
I mention this only because I recently ordered a new expansion (and a small older expansion) for a game that I rather love called Small World. I ordered it from the United States, and UPS was the only shipping option that was available to me.
The subtotal came to $50 US, and I paid $17.50 US for shipping. My credit card was charged, I was issued a tracking number, and the waiting began.
When the package arrived, instead of simply hiding it under my barbecue (as UPS has an incomprehensible habit of doing), I was left only a delivery notice. This notice informed me that I owed $37.42 in brokerage fees, and that delivery would be attempted again the following day.
Perplexed, and more than a little annoyed, I called UPS to enquire about the nature of these charges. The North American Free Trade Agreement (while problematic in many ways) prevents the imposition of most duties and tariffs on goods imported from the United States, after all. I was informed that $6.12 was to be collected in sales tax (GST & PST), while the remaining $31.30 was owed to UPS for "brokerage" and various handling charges.
In effect, they went through the trouble of paying the $6.12 on my behalf and clearing the package through customs, and in return they were demanding $31.30 in exchange. Given the fact that I had already paid $17.50 US (roughly $18.40) in shipping, this brought the total that I was paying for shipping up to 95% of the cost of the goods themselves. Under some circumstances that would be fair: but when the item being shipped is less than two kilos and roughly the size of two hardcover books, that's too much. And when you consider the fact that only 37% of the shipping costs are disclosed beforehand (despite the fact that they are deterministic, and could have been disclosed before the purchase was made), and that the shipping costs that I'd already paid were nonrefundable, I was fairly angry.*
So, the cost of the product that I'd purchased had turned out to be twice as high as the list price, and UPS was holding it for ransom until I coughed up the rest of the dough. I was prepared to write off the shipping fees that I'd already paid, refuse delivery, and receive a refund from the company, because I was not willing to pay UPS their ridiculous fees.
And then my friend Travis told me something that I hadn't heard before: If you're willing to do a little leg-work, you can clear the package through customs yourself, and not pay the bogus brokerage charges. This procedure should apply to any nongovernmental mail service. Here's how to do it:
- Have the shipper write "Self Clear" or "Clears Own" on the package. (This is not required, but it may save the delivery person a trip, so it's a nice thing to do if the shipper is willing to do it.)
- When the package arrives, you will receive either a telephone call or a delivery notice.
- Once the item arrives, you will have to physically go down to the mail service's "Clears Own" office. This office will probably have distinct, absurd hours (the local UPS "Clears Own" office was open Monday to Friday 10:00–3:00) designed specifically to encourage you to just pay them the money.
- At the office, you will receive a few sheets of paper. These must be taken to your local Canadian Border Services Agency office (which will probably be nearby). If there are multiple CBSA offices in your city, make sure that you go to one that handles commercial services.
- At the CBSA office, you will have to describe the contents of the package and pay any applicable taxes. Bring an invoice from the seller, if you have one, and some photo ID.
- Once CBSA has stamped your papers, you will be sent back to the shipping company (probably a different office in the same building as the first). Present your stamped documents, and you will receive your package, free of (further) charge.
- Grin like an idiot, and make rude hand gestures at the shipping company's signage in the parking lot. (Optional.)
* People get angry about things. That's fine. But please avoid taking out your anger on customer service reps who are only doing their jobs. They have nothing to do with the horrendous policies of the companies for whom† they work. I understand that you're upset, but remember what Wil Wheaton says.
† "Corporations are people, my friend."‡
‡ No. No, they're not.