Pass the parcel
- Freight-forwarding services let you buy items from the US that aren't available in Australia
- But be aware you won't know how much you'll pay in freight until your package hits their warehouse – it may be more than you thought
- A service that repacks and removes excess packaging, or consolidates items into one package, could save you money
Any Aussie who regularly shops online will know the frustration of picking out purchases on an American website, only to discover at the checkout that the company doesn't ship to Australia.
Freight-forwarding services look like the answer to this problem. They allow consumers to 'shop without borders' by providing them with the necessary US address – often a warehouse in a state with no, or low, sales tax – which receives their purchases and forwards them to Australia for a fee. But are they everything they're cracked up to be?
This article examines the pros and cons of freight forwarders and takes an in-depth look at Australia Post's ShopMate service.
Plus, freight-forwarding companies compared, and how to choose the right freight forwarder for your needs.
Should I use a freight forwarder?
Freight-forwarding was a particularly great deal for Aussies back when we could bag overseas bargains on the favourable exchange rate, and it's still useful for buying items that aren't available here at all.
But it's not a perfect system. Generally the freight-forwarding company can only give you a definitive quote on the freight costs for your product once they take delivery of it. They need to weigh or measure it (usually both) to determine the cost, so you won't know exactly how much you'll pay until your package hits their warehouse. And sometimes it can be more than you bargained for.
And remember, as of July 2018, the GST will be applied to low-value (ie, less than $1000) goods imported into Australia – so bear in mind this will add 10% to the cost of your purchase.
But if you can't live without that designer handbag or pair of runners from the US, freight-forwarding services are a great option – just make sure you do your research first. You may need to contact the retailer directly to ask for the package's weight and size – amazon.com can be useful for this. Freight forwarder US to OZ recommends getting three weight estimates to find the average.
Australia Post launched its own freight-forwarding service, ShopMate, in November 2014. And while it's great to see Australia Post getting in on the freight-forwarding game, a number of CHOICE readers told us they're not happy with ShopMate's service – so we decided to take a closer look.
How does ShopMate work?
- Sign up for free by creating an Australia Post account.
- Shop with US retailers using ShopMate's mailing address, located in the sales-tax-free state of Oregon.
- Once your goods arrive at the ShopMate warehouse, you'll be notified by email of the shipping costs.
- Log in to your account, declare your package and pay.
- Track your delivery through your Australia Post account.
- Receive your goods within five to eight business days of your shipping costs being paid.
ShopMate customer service criticism
The Postal Industry Ombudsman's office received 83 complaints about ShopMate in 2014–15 (out of a total 5600 complaints about Australia Post and private postal operators). Many of the complaints were during the peak Christmas period, not long after ShopMate launched, and most were in relation to delays and call centre wait times. Other gripes were about shipping charges, package dimension calculations and size limits.
While most freight-forwarding services use couriers like FedEx, UPS or DHL, ShopMate operates through the US and Australian postal services, so it's not all that surprising that there were some complaints about slow service and missing packages. Couriers generally offer faster and more secure delivery than traditional mail.
Since its launch, complaints about ShopMate have decreased significantly – down to 33 complaints in 2016–17. An Australia Post spokesperson says it's "pleasing that the number of reported complaints to the Ombudsman have more than halved", and that AusPost "welcome[s] customer feedback".
However, ShopMate's reputation doesn't seem to have improved, with many customers still taking to online review sites to criticise the service.
Package consolidation service
In its infancy, one common complaint about ShopMate was its lack of a consolidation service. Some customers were hit with unexpectedly high shipping bills when US retailers sent their items in separate packages.
When CHOICE reader Louise from South Australia ordered 2.9kg of clothing from US retailer Banana Republic in 2015, she calculated the freight forwarding to cost $52.65 based on ShopMate's charges of $22.95 per parcel, plus an additional $4.95 per 500g – but her actual bill came to over $120.
"It turns out that the retailer sent my order in four separate packages even though it was ordered and paid in one transaction. As a result each package attracted the $22.95 charge and each package was charged a minimum of 500g. One package contained one pair of socks, valued at $US4. In the end I paid the extortionate postage for most of my items. The socks missed out. I won't be using ShopMate again."
ShopMate has remedied this by offering a consolidation service for a fee. But the catch is they'll only consolidate packages from the same retailer – so you can't combine shoes from one retailer with a book from another, for instance. For parcels from different retailers, ShopMate offers a bundling discount. You pay the full fee for the first package, then receive a $7.50 discount per subsequent packages.
All of the other freight-forwarding companies we looked at for this article can consolidate packages either for free or for a fee, which is likely to reduce the overall shipping bill.
Cubic weight vs actual weight
When calculating shipping charges, ShopMate measures the cubic weight (also known as volumetric or dimensional weight) and the actual weight of your parcel, and charges for whichever measurement is greater. This is standard practice for most postal and courier services.
To measure a parcel's weight in cubic centimetres, ShopMate uses the formula Height x length x width ÷ 6000.
For example, a pair of lightweight running shoes might weigh only half a kilo – but if they come in a standard shoe box measuring 35 x 25 x 12cm, their cubic weight will be 1.75kg. Odd-shaped packages can cause even bigger price shocks.
Sleeping on the job
CHOICE member Carolyn found this out the hard way when she ordered a special CPAP pillow to assist with her severe sleep apnoea in 2017. ShopMate managed to lose the parcel in its warehouse due to an admin bungle.
"After multiple emails being sent and resent and several phone calls over the following weeks stressing that this wasn't just a 'nice-to-have' item but a medical aid, I received an automated message at 2.38 in the morning to say my package had been delivered to the warehouse in Oregon," she says.
She then logged into her ShopMate account to find that the postage fee would be AU$67.55 – far more than she'd expected. "According to Australia Post, the actual item weight was 1.8kg and yet repacked it was 3.8kg (the 'chargeable weight') – they more than doubled the weight with their so-called 'cost-effective packaging'!"
Eventually, Australia Post waived all delivery fees and delivered the pillow to Carolyn in Australia. "My order was finally received on 27 June 2017 after being ordered on 24 April 2017. I haven't tried the service since!" she says.
Cassie used ShopMate to forward a parcel weighing a little over 4kg. "Much to my shock when the parcel arrived at their warehouse in the US I got an email saying that my postage would be $150 for a cubic weight of 10kg! ... If it is in a branded box (which everything would be!) their policy is not to repack it."
In response to Cassie's situation, Australia Post told us, "We will not repack the item if there is a risk of the package being compromised by doing so."
ShopMate can repack a parcel to reduce its cubic weight, for a $5 fee, but this is done at their discretion and only if there's a saving of more than two kilograms. They won't repack items that are in branded packaging (which rules out many retail goods) or items in protective packaging like Styrofoam.
Some of the other freight-forwarding services we looked at have similar restrictions on removing protective packaging, but most have no problems removing branded packaging.
A US retailer mailed this tiny tablecloth in an unnecessarily large box.
The freight-forwarder repacked it in an envelope to reduce its cubic weight before shipping to Australia.
Photos: US to Oz
What if the store won't accept an Australian credit card?
Not only do some US retail websites refuse to post to non-US addresses, some will refuse payment from non-US credit cards too. For a fee, some freight-forwarding services can make a purchase on your behalf. This service goes by a variety of names, such as Assisted Purchase (Shipito), BuyForMe (ComGateway and HopShopGo) and Shop For Me (MatesFreight), among others. US to Oz can bid on US eBay or buy US iTunes gift cards for you.
Some companies, like MatesFreight, ComGateway and HopShopGo, allow you to search for products and brands via their site, so you know you're already shopping with participating retailers.
There are dozens of companies all over the world offering similar services to ShopMate. We looked at some of the main players shipping from the US to Australia:
||US to OZ
|Cost to ship 2kg package to Australia
||US$36 standard delivery (5–8 business days) or US$43.20 Express/Prime delivery (3–4 business days)
||US$46.98 via DHL, plus a service fee of US$8.00
||US$41.96 (delivered in 5–10 days by FedEx Economy) up to US$94.18 (delivered in 2–8 days by UPS)
||From US$46.08 (4–9 business days with Australia Post) to US$122.79 (5–6 business days with USPS Express Mail)
||AU$42.75 via US and Australian postal services
- US$76.42 (Basic membership)
- From US$14.02 to US$217.98 depending on membership level
|US$67.10 for postage, plus 4.5% of the item cost, plus exchange rate fee
|How shipping is calculated
||US$24 (Standard) or US$28.80 (Express) for the first 0.5kg, then US$4 (Standard) or US$4.80 (Express) for every additional 0.5kg
||US$12 per box, plus shipping (for goods valued $0–500) or 5% of value plus shipping (for goods valued over US$500). Single item shipping is US$10 plus shipping for a single item (ie, one pair of shoes or one phone)
||Based on weight, regardless of package size and count
||US$2 per package plus your choice of shipping. (Shipping varies by destination, carrier, weight, dimensions, declared value.)
||AU$22.95 per package, plus AU$4.95 per 500g
||Varies depending on membership level
||4.5% of the value of your goods plus shipping, with a minimum fee of AU$12 and a maximum fee of AU$350 (plus optional insurance)
| Online shipping calculator
||Yes – has a live-quote feature
||No – has a 'request a quote' service instead
||No – quotes can be requested via email or website form; use USPS shipping estimator for shipping cost guide
|Warehouse location/sales tax*
||Oregon / 0%
||Oregon / 0%
||Florida / 6% (Although MyUS claims it is the only company of its kind to earn a tax-free postal code, giving customers tax-free shopping)
||Oregon / 0%, California / up to 9%, Nevada / up to 7.1%, Austria (EU)
||Oregon / 0%
||Texas / 6.25%
||Colorado / 2.9%
||Free Standard membership. Every three shipments entitles you to six months of Prime membership
||Free for a single package; 30-day free Premium trial ($7/month thereafter); Premium+MAIL $25/month
||Free standard membership; Premium membership is $10 per month or $50 annually
- Basic – $23 set-up fee; no monthly fee
- Standard – $15 set-up fee; $10 monthly fee
- Premium – $15 set-up fee; $35 monthly fee
- Ultimate – $15 set-up fee; $60 monthly fee
||Up to 3 packages for free; additional packages US$1. Free for Prime members
||Free for premium members
||Premium members only – $3 per package
||AU$4.95 per package; max. 5 packages from the same retailer
- Standard: US$7 for box cutdowns; US$5 for box to bag
- Prime: US$5 for box cutdowns; US$3 for box to bag
||Free for premium members
||Premium members only – $5 fee
||AU$5 per parcel for fragile parcels or to reduce volumetric size; won't repack items in branded packaging or styrofoam, or if it won't reduce parcel size by at least 2kg
||Flat fee of $5 or for 50% of shipping savings
Yes – 10% of transaction cost; 7% for Prime members
|Yes – US$15 per box plus shipping (for goods valued US$0–500) or 5% of goods’ value (for goods valued over US$500), plus shipping
||Yes – for premium members only; 8% fee or minimum of $10 per order
Yes – $8.50 per 10 items from same retailer, plus 4.3% processing fee, plus 8% commission fee
||Yes – $10 minimum per order or 10–13.5% of purchase price, depending on payment method
||Yes – AU$5 per transaction
| Storage fees
- Standard: free for 30 days, US$1/day after.
- Prime: free for 60 days, US$1/day after
|Free for 14 days, then US$1/day thereafter
||30 days free for premium members only, then charges increase up to a maximum of $6/day after 90 days, for an oversized package
||Free storage for up to 90 days (180 days in Nevada warehouse)
||21 days free; AU$2 per parcel per day for parcels thereafter
||Free for 30–90 days, depending on membership level, then $1 per lb
||Will only hold items for a "reasonable” [unspecified] length of time
- Ships primarily via DHL Express and FedEx Express
- Australian owned and operated
- Customised pricing for customers shipping 2–3+ times per month
- Payment by PayPal only (3% fee)
- Ships mostly via USPS, but can arrange UPS, FedEx or sea freight
- Free photo of your item on request; US$0.50 per image thereafter
- Free repacking to remove unnecessary packaging and promotional material to reduce weight and bulk. MatesFreight says 99% of their customers have shoes shipped without the box to reduce costs
- In-store pick-up service starts at US$25
- A large company with 400,000+ members in 220 countries and territories
- Ships via USPS, UPS, FedEx and DHL
- Can ship Dangerous Goods via FedEx (certain postcodes) and DHL (all areas)
- Non-members can only have one package at a time handled by Shipito's warehouses
- Use of the Austrian and Oregon warehouses, and services such as package consolidation are only available to Premium members ($10/month or $50/year)
- Will send you three photographs of your item (for free) and will open and inspect the contents of your package if asked (for a fee). Additional photos available for US$2–5
- Assisted purchase service – online and actual stores
- Express processing US$5
- 'US Unlocked' program: you can get your own virtual prepaid US debit card, allowing you to shop in the US and have your purchases delivered to a Shipito warehouse
- Ships via USPS, UPS, FedEx and DHL
- Some membership levels entitle you to free shipping each month
- Members can also sell in the US
- Established 2004
- Australian owned and operated – all payments in Aussie dollars to an Australian bank account
- Charges for actual weight, not cubic weight (so a good choice for shipping lightweight but bulky items)
- Ships mostly via USPS, but can arrange FedEx, DHL or sea freight
- No online shipping calculator – price quotes via email or website form
- Can make US purchases and bid on US eBay on your behalf
- Exchange rate used for conversion from USD to AUD is the current exchange rate less 2.5 cents – eg, if the exchange rate is 0.745 then US to Oz will use a 0.72 exchange rate
- Free photos of your order if requested
Prices and details correct as at April 2018. All dollar amounts are in US dollars unless otherwise specified.
Table notes: * Sales tax applies to goods purchased in US and is payable to retailer, not freight-forwarding service. ** Buy from retailers that don't accept Australian credit cards.
Tips for using freight-forwarding services
- Don't base your provider choice on shipping price alone – service can be just as important.
- How will your package be shipped? Couriers are generally faster and more secure, and they're not always more expensive than airmail.
- Is this a one-off purchase or are you a regular international shopper? Some companies offer lower rates to members, and some are members-only.
- Have you calculated the cubic weight of your parcel? You could save on shipping if you choose a service that can repack and remove excess packaging.
- Buying multiple items? Look for a service that can consolidate your items into one package. And if your items are likely to arrive on different days, check whether you'll be charged storage fees for keeping them at the warehouse.
- Buying something bulky? Check size and weight limits. Some companies offer sea freight for very bulky items.
- Buying something dangerous? Check the fine print. Some companies may not be able to ship liquids, chemicals, weapons, tools, items with lithium batteries and other items classed as 'dangerous goods'.