The FINANCIAL — Online shopping in Georgia, no matter how theoretically therapeutic, has a tendency to become a burdensome task: only a few online stores deliver purchases to this part of the world; their use of such carriers like FedEx or UPS is expensive; and delivery, even though guaranteed, becomes hampered by the difficulty of finding anyone’s address in the maze of Tbilisi’s streets.
These hurdles aside, some form of online shopping is better than no online shopping at all. After all, the consumer retail scene in Georgia is comparatively poor, leaving a shopaholic with few alternatives: either shop online or make frequent trips abroad. I had previously considered the former option to be both cheaper and ultimately more convenient until a recent experience proved me wrong.
Needing to add some flair to my summer outfits, I bought a pair of sandals online and had them shipped to Tbilisi. The UPS shipment originated in Italy and came in at a cost of about 40 USD. I was confident that such a price tag for delivery services would ensure that the shoes would appear at my door within 3 to 6 business days, as promised, no questions asked.
Instead, I received a phone call from the UPS office in Tbilisi saying that since the total value of my package exceeded the 300 GEL (170 USD) cap for non-taxable imports it was my responsibility to have my package cleared with Georgian customs. As I learnt on the spot, the Government collects 18 percent Value Added Tax (VAT) from all cargo exceeding 300 GEL in value, its nature and purpose notwithstanding. I was thus advised to come to the UPS office for a more detailed session on the intricacies of Georgia’s customs regulations.
After an arduous search for a grey door in an obscure building’s courtyard, I rushed (for nothing motivates me more than a pair of new shoes) into the UPS Georgian headquarters only to learn that in order to get my package I would need to travel all the way to the old airport, which is inconveniently located a couple of hundred meters away from the new Tbilisi International Airport.
Furthermore, I was advised to undertake such a journey immediately, since time was money and the longer my package stayed at the warehouse, the more I would have to pay for its storage. The last piece of disenchanting news UPS relayed to me was that, as a citizen of a country other than Georgia, I would need to hire a private consultant/representative to fill out my customs declaration before I could collect the package. UPS was kind enough to provide a cell phone number for such a person, but not a ride to the airport.
Later that same day I found myself stumbling across the shambles of the old airport, which now seemed to have been turned into a huge warehouse surrounded by the offices of the police, customs and private consultants. In this part of the world my new pair of shoes suddenly became “cargo” and my own identity was transformed into that of an “importer.”
Finding my way to the UPS-appointed consultant’s office, I was charged 50 GEL (29 USD) for his assistance in filling out the necessary paperwork. Handing over the documents I only had to answer one question: What is in the package? – Shoes.
Given this information, my consultant determined that to import the precious “cargo” into Georgia I needed to pay 95 GEL (54 USD) worth of VAT alongside another government charge that equalled 11 GEL (6 USD). By the way, the VAT was not only calculated on the value of the package, but also on the cost of its shipping.
It took another hour for me to make my way to the new airport, stand in line, pay the tax (which needed to be deposited into two different accounts, thus doubling the bank charge for making the transaction), and go back to the old airport to present the payment receipts.
Several passport copies and signed papers later, I was told to wait while my “cargo” was being cleared at customs. My consultant was in charge of the process (hence the hefty 50 GEL fee). As an “importer,” I had the privilege of waiting for clearance in his office, which seemed to double as a venting ground for irritated businessmen and stressed-out consultants alike. An hour and a half later, my consultant presented me with some stamped papers and pointed at a warehouse where I could now collect my “cargo.”
A queue (if a disorganized rabble can be called that) at the warehouse resulted in another 30-minute delay before the absence of a necessary stamp on the front page of my paperwork sent me back to the consultant, who had to make a second trip to customs. It was like being trapped in a nightmare game of Monopoly, constantly getting sent back spaces without ever passing “Go.”
By the end of the day, the cost of my shoes had skyrocketed from 300 USD to about 400 USD and a wasted business day. I was left with an almost psychotic desire to vent my frustration.
I later heard that the 300 GEL limit on tax-free imports from abroad was established to dissuade people from shopping online and sway them into buying locally sold or produced items. Did my experience convince me to stop shopping online? – Probably not. Did it persuade me to exclusively turn to the local shopping scene for purchases? – Definitely not.