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Tuesday, 1 October, 2002, 11:25 GMT 12:25 UK
Can shoppers beat high prices?
Remote control reporter
Fifth in a series driven by readers

Is "rip-off Britain" still alive and well or can it be consigned to the dustbin of history?

In the fifth part of our investigation, BBC News Online readers asked our reporter to find out whether shoppers can beat high prices in the UK.

In the past, people just accepted that they had to pay over the odds, but during the 1990s the concept of "Rip-off Britain" began to emerge.

Phil Evans, author of "Rip-off Britain" and senior policy adviser at the Consumers' Association, says there has been a seismic shift in the way we behave as consumers.

Cheap international travel has played a massive part in people's perceptions of how much they should be paying in the UK, he says.

"Generally we have become more stroppy over the last few years.

"If you go back to the 1980s being overcharged was almost something to brag about.

"Now it's more a case of 'look, see what I've saved'."

Web benefit

The internet has played a major role in offering savings to UK consumers.

Lower overheads in cyberspace can mean cheaper prices.

CDs from Hong Kong or DVDs from the Channel Islands can now be imported at a fraction of the UK retail price.


Usually the last week of any month is a good time to go into a dealer

Andrew Francis, Carpricecheck.com

For example, you can get Rolling Stones 40 Licks from CD-Wow, a website based in Hong Kong, for £12.99 including delivery, retailing for £16.99 on the High Street.

Alternatively Coldplay's "A Rush of Blood to the Head" can be bought for £8.99, compared with £13.99 on the High Street.

One way of saving money and comparing prices on the web is though aggregator sites, otherwise known as shop bots.

You can type in what you want, and then the sites check prices from a range of online stores for a raft of goods from electrical items to CDs and books.

You will not always find the cheapest price for your goods, but it is an easy way of shopping around and one way to make savings.

Big savings

Mr Evans says the biggest savings a consumer can make is when they purchase a car.

According to Carpricecheck.com, a price comparison site, importing a BMW3 Series 330d Sport 4 door will save £3,185 on the average UK transaction price.

Autumn
Shoppers can make seasonal savings

Many of the traditional car importers now offer discounts off UK-made cars, and most dealers will allow you to haggle over the price.

Car experts say there is little need to pay the list or advertised price displayed at a dealership.

If you pick the right time of month or year, you could also make some savings.

"Usually the last week of any month is a good time to go into a dealer," says Andrew Francis from Carpricecheck.com.

This is because the dealer may not have met the manufacturer's monthly sales targets and could have discounts to offer.

Mr Francis also says March and September are good times to pick up a bargain.

"If a dealer has to sell 50 new Vauxhall Corsas by the end of the week, you might get £1,300-£1,400 off, with free insurance."

House bargains

Similarly, Jim Cruickshank of Assertahome, an online estate agency, has some seasonal tips for people buying or selling a home.

People should be looking to buy just before seasonal peaks in the market - traditionally Spring and Autumn, he says.

"If you're buying a house, make sure you have already done your research, and arranged your mortgage.

"Then you can move faster than other buyers. It's all about speed."

Tax and import duty

While huge savings can be made on the net and from mail order, it is important to consider duty and tax.

When goods are posted from outside the European Community, duty and VAT are payable unless the value of the goods is £18 or less.

Relaxing to music
Watch out for tax on imports

This may make take the shine off some bargains.

For example, if you are purchasing £100 of women's clothing from the US, including insurance and freight, it will incur duty at 12.4%.

On top of that there is UK value added tax (VAT) at 17.5%, as well as possible courier and customs charges of about £15.

What looked like a bargain, could end up costing you more than £147.

Customs & Excise advises people purchasing goods over the internet to check first.

Every item has a "tariff code", and duty varies considerably between items. If you need to check tariff codes, call the Customs & Excise helpline on 01702 366 077.

Protection

The other disadvantage of purchasing from US sites is that consumers have very little reproach if something goes wrong.

In theory, if you buy from a site based within the European Union, you should be better protected.

A European Directive called the Distance Selling regulations sets out minimum standards.

For example, there must be a cooling-off period of seven working days.

Tony Northcote, spokesman for the Trading Standards Institute, says that if anything goes wrong, trading standards can also liaise with other European countries.

There are a few golden rules to observe:

  • Buy from a reputable company

  • Keep copies of webpages you have bought from and, in particular, the final copy and the advert, just in case there is a dispute over a price or specification.

All internet sites must have their full name and address, full price including taxes, delivery costs and a full description of goods - if this is not there, then think twice before buying.

Which? also runs a Webtrader code of practice which guarantees minimum standards.


How much money have you saved by haggling or shopping on the net? What are your savings tips? Do you think prices have gone down in the UK?

Your comments:

I bought my MD on the net for £199 when on the high street it would have cost me £260! Rip-off!!
Tom, UK

Rip-off of Britain? Of course! But I think the biggest cheat is the government. Taxes have increased since '97 without any rise in the quality of Public Services. Yes you can pay too much for a CD if you're not careful -but that's just it: as a consumer you have a CHOICE! As a taxpayer, you do NOT.
Chris of Nottingham, UK

Biggest rip-off of the moment? Houses. I couldn¿t afford one if I tried.
Phil, UK

Yes, Rip off Britain is still alive and well. 15 years ago I used to live in America and whenever I'd come back home the price of consumer goods used to make me so annoyed with this country. Little has changed.
Mark Moran, England

I've just saved over £100 off my home and contents insurance with the same level of cover by going through an online broker. I always buy electrical and electronic equipment over the net and avoid the big high street names. In this way I saved over £500 on a PC I bought three months ago. My advice to anyone who reads this is that you don't have to pay high prices if you don't want to, you just have be willing to put in a little effort on the net to get great deals.
Andy, UK

I have saved £££'s by shopping on the net - my most recent bargain is a travel system and cot bed for the baby I am expecting where I saved over £200 by purchasing on the net. I also regularly go to France to shop for items like olive oil, vinegars, jams and tinned vegetables along with wine and beer as it's so much cheaper there than in the UK. Until something is done about the high levels of tax & VAT on items, money will always go abroad because it's nonsensical to spend more in this country.
Becka, UK

Like Becka, I regularly do my household shopping in France. Yes, there is a cost for the travel, however this more than offset by the savings I get on everyday goods, including groceries, cooking utensils, toiletries, electrical goods and clothes. A better selection, a different choice and also an enjoyable day out. One tip, avoid the ports and move inland, it's cheaper and quieter!
Richard, UK

Nervous about buying online, even if it saves you money? Simply do your research on the Net, then take your prices into a local store. I managed to save £300 on a camcorder when the shop agreed to match the online saving.
Ian, UK

Lots of people complain about prices, but one of the reasons we know about these cheaper deals abroad is that we have the cheapest flights and holiday package deals in the world. It's all swings and roundabouts. A lot of things here may be more expensive than say Italy, but do you imagine that Italians earn as much as Brits? No way. England is no shoppers paradise, but just get a £10 flight to Italy and buy all the designer clothes you like and get a £10 flight back. Use your brains and get a free weekend away now and then.
James Piper, England

I imported a new car from Sweden for 15k on the road, retail price in the UK is 21k. Yep its still rip off UK
Simon Kennett, England

I recently had to buy a certain tool for my work. It cost eighty or ninety pounds in the UK, but they are available in America for sixty-five dollars. Seems like a rip-off to me!
Rob M, UK

Some rip-offs we can work around - for example by buying goods via the web - some, like overpriced broadband access, we can't. I can buy hard-to-find bike components from Germany, the USA, the Netherlands - wherever. But don't forget that when your friendly local shop goes bust, you bear some of the blame. It's not all about price.
Guy Chapman, UK

I have lived here on and off since 1970. I am tired of listening to "Oh, it is so expensive in England!" "It does nothing but rain there". You have a lot of fog in England". "How on earth can you afford to go on vacation there?" I get a little irritated at these comments but I certainly agree with the fact things are so expensive, relative to living here that is. I believe the cost of buying a new car is coming down so should a few other items, housing for example. I would like to move back to England but I cannot do so due to the cost of housing. Clothing, well, I could add to the list. Surely there must be a mass exodus of people leaving England for "greener" pastures? How can we stop this?
Lynne, Canada

Shopping around for utilities, banking and insurance services is one of the biggest savers, and there are many comparison sites; among other things I've saved 20-30 per cent over High Street prices on branded electrical goods, at least a factor of 2 on my new PC by building it myself, £100 a year on gas and electricity and £400 a year on household insurance, and also greatly improved my current and savings account interest rates. (And the most expensive insurance quote online was five times that of the cheapest!)
Alastair Scott, London, United Kingdom

The UK is such a rip off - is the Government so stupid it can't see money drifting abroad?
Justin, England

New Ford Focus 2.0 LX £8575 - 25p/litre for fuel right now in the USA. Definitely still rip off Britain.
Steve Y, USA/UK

"I promise I can match any offer you get on this car", the Renault dealer said to me, before insisting that she wouldn't budge from the list price until I had found some other offers. What I ended up buying was an import - identical to a UK car, delivered within weeks, and £3,000 less than the UK list price. The best the dealer could do? A measly £400 off.
Daniel, UK

I buy all my DVDs from Australia, the latest releases cost between 7 and 8 pounds each including postage and packing. It's ridiculous what we have to pay for here.
James Newman, UK

Britain is a bargain compared to Los Angeles, Chicago, or New York. I just moved to L.A. and my gas, electric, and food bills have all tripled. My housing expense is no cheaper, and I'm not earning any more money (in fact, I'm earning less in absolute terms because the exchange rate is so skewed). I don't think the British have any right to complain - they have no clue what a rip-off is until they try living somewhere else. I also have to pay $400/month for health insurance now!
Ben, U.S.

Rip off Britain is a myth. People inevitably quote discounted prices they find abroad against the standard UK prices. Broadband access is now cheaper in the UK than the US. Computer components are the same price in the UK as the US and we have the cheapest flights anywhere. The only rip offs in the UK are things with massive tax levels like fuel.
Vince, Wales

House prices are the greatest concern for me. How is it that the price of houses are so high, when peoples incomes have not gone up. Is the Government going to do anything about this?
Murli, UK

They only charge what people what will pay. Unfortunately most people never say "its too expensive - I wont have one"
Russell, UK

I try not to pay high street prices for my clothes and prefer a rummage through a charity shop. Not only do you find real bargains but you can look good too
Jane Charelesworth , England

I live in Frankfurt and every time I go back to the UK it costs me an arm and a leg! Eating out is like a lottery: if you're lucky enough to find a decent pub or restaurant the prices are usually high and the portions small. In contrast, in Germany the standard in bars, restaurants is consistent, and the quality and portions good
Andrew, Germany

You want to try living here tax free - yeah right. We come to the UK to shop cheaper. How ironic is that ?
Dave Thomas, Guernsey

Rip off Britain is alive and well. It is NOT a tax issue, countries with much higher taxes still have cheaper goods. The problem is that the British have never really complained. Now we are, these companies are using taxes as an excuse to keep prices high. It just is not true. These companies don¿t pay their own taxes using accountants to cheat the government, then they turn around and try to blame our already low taxes for their rip off prices
Vish, UK

Try living in the USA. Grocery bills are much higher. For example bread, milk and cereal are at least 200% more in the US.
George, USA

My wife and I are like many young couples in the UK who are struggling with high prices and low wages. The main issue for young people is housing. Housing is so expensive in areas where there are jobs available that we are forced to live with my mother in a two bedroomed terraced house. We do not earn enough to secure a mortgage and rent and travel costs are prohibitively expensive. We cannot even start a family until we are granted council housing from the local authority. House price inflation has vastly exceeded wage rises and is undermining young people's future. The UK desperately needs more development in poorer regions along with the building of more affordable rented housing stock. As for us, we are looking to move to my wife's home country of India, where the standard of living enjoyed by young professionals is far higher than in the UK.
Dan Brett, UK

I have just purchased a Camcorder online, ordered from my desk at 10am one day and delivered at 2pm the next day from France at over £150 cheaper then the UK high-street, direct to my office, If only I could by my diesel on line!
Ian, UK

I got a quote from a UK dealer for a service on my car of £300. I used the net to find the name of a dealer in Calais who quoted me £100 for the same service. £50 for a shuttle ticket, so a saving of £150 and a bootfull of cheap booze as well!
Mat Diss, UK

Beer tax in Britain adds 40p per pint to the retail price of beer. In German supermarkets, the full retail price of beer including all taxes is often less than 40p per pint. Rip-off Britain is not caused just by greedy retailers. The British government has a lot to answer for as well.
Nicholas Hodder, London, UK

As a graduate student studying in the UK this year, I was mortified by the expense of living in the UK. I've often asked myself how the average Briton gets by? Salaries in the UK seem nowhere near commensurate with the cost of living.
Sam, Canada

I usually try to buy my sports gear and clothes in the UK. Even with an unfavourable exchange rate I still make good savings. The prices are much lower than in Europe.
Andy, Austria

Don't forget to lose your English reserve whenever buying - particularly with cash. Never accept the first price; always seek out a discount or extras. I got £750 knocked off a &7000 new car at a major dealer simply by walking towards the exit when he wouldn't budge. You will be surprised how much leeway these store/dealer managers have to discount when pushed hard enough.
Owen Salisbury, England

See also:

20 Sep 02 | Business
10 Sep 02 | Politics
03 Sep 02 | Politics
19 Sep 02 | Business
22 Aug 01 | Consumer
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