Ever-increasing numbers of micro-budget filmmakers are obtaining equipment directly from merchants in China and Hong Kong.
Gone are the days when such transactions relied on business contacts. Today, anyone can log in to their eBay or Amazon account and find marketplace sellers who are based in China or Hong Kong.
Choose a product, pay for it through the normal checkout, and a parcel from China or Hong Kong arrives a few weeks later.
But are there any risks to be aware of? Actually, there are plenty.
Tip: Do you need to buy equipment in the first place? Loans and second hand purchases bring the price down even more. Use your network or ask for help on the Facebook Groups for filmmakers.
Why Buy Direct From China?
Clearly, the big advantage is the price.
You see the products, including the equipment you’d love to have on set, available for a significant discount on what you’d expect it to cost. Paying less for each item you buy means you can move on to buying other things. More props, good costumes, a better set; the list goes on.
Buying through a website with a strong reputation also provides protection. Amazon and eBay, for example, have clearly defined return and refund policies.
How To Spot Chinese Sellers On Amazon
Reputable websites instruct their marketplace sellers to declare their location. So you will normally see on screen, very clearly, that the goods will be sent from China or Hong Kong.
Estimated arrival times will generally show the three weeks or so the item will take to travel from abroad.
Unfortunately, as UK customers have picked up on the risks of using overseas suppliers, some merchants have reacted inappropriately.
It is possible to be tricked by a trader who displays a Union Jack flag and states they are in the UK, when in fact they are located in China or Hong Kong.
Be careful to keep clicking or scrolling through all the trader’s available information. Their registered address will give you the information you need.
Also, look carefully at the customer reviews. Some complaints identify those traders misrepresenting their location, especially on ebay.
If you come across this sort of misrepresentation, flag it up with the website administrators. Their reputation relies on their marketplace sellers acting legally and responsibly; so clear breaches of the terms and conditions should be taken seriously.
As this article from ecomcrew shows, there are plenty of underhand tactics going on.
Do I Have To Pay Import Duty From China?
When products are brought into the UK, duties are required dependant on the type of import and the country it arrived from.
All UK based sellers have already paid their duties when the shipment was first imported.
In addition, if their business is large enough to require VAT registration with HMRC, they must add VAT of 20% when they sell to you.
Many Chinese and Hong Kong traders sending individual parcels to households in the UK do not pay duty or VAT. Instead, they label the parcel as a ‘gift’.
It’s thought about £1billion a year in duties or VAT is not paid because of this practice. That’s £1billion that can’t be spent on your schools or hospitals.
In 2018, the European Commission wrote to the UK government demanding €2.7bn (£2.4bn) in customs duties on shoes and textiles imported from China. According to the BBC, EU watchdog Olaf “found organised crime groups had been using fake invoices to undervalue goods being imported from China – many of which were destined for the black market in other parts of the EU, investigators claimed.”
Meanwhile, it’s directly impacting the legally compliant UK businesses who lost your custom because their prices reflected the true cost of business in the UK.
An Unexpected Tax Bill
UK Customs officers have the right to check all parcels coming in.
If they open yours and discover the ‘gift’ is an imported purchase, you will be asked to pay the 20% VAT bill. Then the delivery company will add a clearance fee on top.
The parcel won’t be released until you pay, so you get delayed receipt in addition to an unexpected bill.
That’s not helpful when you have deadlines and a lot of reorganising to do.
How Long Does It Take To Ship From China?
This depends – and has a lot to do with the price you paid.
High-quality sellers will pay for items to be transported via air freight. Your parcel typically reaches you within three days.
But the cheaper prices you see advertised reflect slower postage methods. By sea and land, it can take three weeks for your parcel to arrive. Which for many people is fine.
But if you’re a filmmaker you’ve probably ordered the item shortly before all your cast and crew are gathering on set.
My Item From China Hasn’t Arrived!
Large reputable retail websites set out their terms and conditions clearly. You quickly find the process to report items that never arrive – first by contacting the supplier.
Unfortunately, some marketplace sellers know how to exploit these rules.
They politely respond to complaints, using a variety of delaying tactics.
Sometimes they say they will look into the problem and get back to you; sometimes they say they will look into it when the factory holidays are over; eventually, they say they will send a replacement item.
By the time you realize the replacement item hasn’t been sent either, you are out of time to claim a refund from eBay/Amazon or your credit card.
How To Return Imported Goods To China
If you buy a product online and discover, when it arrives, that it is not as described, you are allowed to return it and receive a refund.
The same applies to electrical items which develop a fault within the guarantee period.
Sellers from China and Hong Kong will almost certainly ask you to pay for the postage when you return an item.
As you will want to keep a track of where your equipment is going to ensure it gets there, the postage costs can easily hit more than £20 for a small, lightweight item.
And once it reaches Chinese customs, there is a very real possibility that your equipment will never see daylight again.
The Chinese customs team will NOT merrily wave your parcel through and allow it to reach the retailer for repairs.
Instead, they will impound the parcel until the necessary duties have been paid. You will be officially informed of this. But because the import duties are so high for electronic equipment the bill would be another significant hit.
You also incur costs for the payment to be made in a foreign currency!
And, of course, all these costs are required just to get the equipment to the retailer, in the hope they do receive it and then repair it.
How To Buy From China And Hong Kong
It is possible to buy products from Chinese marketplace sellers cheaply on reputable websites. But it isn’t as safe as you might expect, so consider the risks carefully.
Firstly, don’t spend more than you can afford to lose.
If you are taking out a loan or using the last of your savings to purchase the item, don’t take risk. Pay the extra to get exactly what you need locally and with the guarantee provided under UK retail law. Only buy from abroad online if the expenditure is small.
Make sure the product and the marketplace seller have plenty of reviews, which look genuine.
If the reviews are all written in stilted English, there is a risk they were written by fake reviewers who were paid by the company selling the products.
Where few reviews are present, perhaps the trader is new; or they may have just abandoned a previous account which was riddled with complaints.
Whenever you see reviews which give you pause, walk away.
If the product doesn’t arrive, move quickly to claim a refund.
The retailer will be playing a waiting game, hoping their delaying tactics will time out your rights to a refund. Don’t let them. Ignore polite messages asking you to wait and kick up a fuss with the website who hosts their account.
If the product arrives but is faulty or later goes wrong, prepare to write it off to experience.
The costs of postage, customs and currency conversions added to the value of your time may make repair and replacement a frustrating waste of money.
At the end of the day, you are buying items to make your film. Don’t let the promise of a small discount get in the way of that.
How To Buy Locally On Amazon & eBay
Unfortunately, even if you limit your searches on Amazon and ebay to exclude chinese sellers, which isn’t easy, some will still appear. Accounts run by people living in the UK don’t declare that friends and family in China will dispatch the items. So you need to check the company address, estimated delivery time and previous reviews.
How Many Chinese Sellers Are on Amazon?
It’s thought that more than 200,000 accounts on Amazon are run from China. Third party sellers now advertise the majority of products you’ll find listed there.
Luckily, the filmmaking world is full of creatives who endlessly support each other. Join one of the hundreds of Facebook Groups that discuss filmmaking day and night. Then your requests for equipment recommendations will be answered by people who know exactly what you need and where from, without it costing your entire budget.