One of the best things about shopping online is you can buy pretty much anything from anywhere, and seal the deal without ever having to step out of your front door.
But while that should ensure a level playing field no matter where you're buying from, in reality Australians are often being charged extra simply for being in Australia. You don't need us to tell you how big online shopping has become over the past half-decade. Yes, there's the obvious convenience and flexibility factors, but for Australians in particular it also allows you to buy and have shipped over items either not available locally, or only available at inflated prices.
However, retailers have begun to notice the steady flow of dollars coming in from Down Under, and have started inflating prices to take advantage – the so-called "Australia Tax".
Various retailers abroad have been found to be changing the prices – the same item, the same website, but change your location to Australia, and your price goes up. Not the shipping, mind, just the item price. Shipping still gets added later.
Take a look at Mango, for example, and you’ll see the price difference on items can be pretty substantial. The Mango Guipure dress: buy it from Australia, and it’ll set you back AUD$169.95. Buy it from the US and it’s only AUD$119.95.
Next, if we head over to Coach you'll find this season's hottest new handbags, the Bleecker range, as well as another instance of the big pricing divide often faced by Australians online. If you're buying one from the US, you'll be charged $407.83 (AUD) - a hearty price for a handbag, but doable. Pop over to the UK site, and you'll find it's slightly more, at $435.65. Decide to buy it from the local website, however, and you'll be forking out a jaw dropping $555. At least they'll throw in free shipping for that price.
To be clear though, not all overseas retailers are playing this game. Boohoo.com is one such example of a popular online retailer in Oz who doesn’t charge much more – remember, you have to make allowances for exchange rate and so on. For instance, the Alice cable knit long sleeve Bodycon dress would cost me £10 if I bought it in the UK today – at today’s exchange rate that’s $18.13 – but if I buy it from the Australian site, it’s $25. It needs to be said though that in this case, shipping would be an additional almost $13, whereas buying it from the Australian site would be free.
ASOS, although sometimes have restrictions on shipping specific items or brands to certain countries, generally don't appear to be a regular offender of the so-called "Australian Tax" either. Most of the time prices remain fairly similar across boarders as can be seen with the ASOS Ridley high waist ultra skinny jeans (in rich blue) which would be $54.38 if bought from the UK, $61 if bought from the US and $58.34 if bought in Australia.
How Do These Retailers Know Where You Are?
Geoblocking is the system used to limit your access to the internet, based on your geographic location. When you access a website, your IP address is sent, telling it roughly where you are based. These databases become the information used in Geoblocking, much like region coding on DVDs, which is specifically used by streaming sites for ‘rights licensing limitations’. Retailers also use geoblocks to charge people in one country one price, and another country a different price, as shown above.
While we could feel a bit offended that we’re taken advantage of in this way, we don’t really have to as this isn’t really a ‘new’ problem, and there are a few ways around it.
How Can We Get Around Geoblocking?
Firstly, you could use a Virtual Private Network, or VPN. Using a VPN routes your internet traffic via a remote location – in other words, it connects you to another IP, even though you’re not actually there. You can register with a VPN service for as little as $2-$5 a month with reductions for annual subscriptions.
Proxy servers don’t change your IP address, but act as a middle man and obtain content on your behalf before passing it to you. The retailer only sees the request from the proxy server, but they don’t see where you are. You simply have to Google “Proxy Servers” to find a plethora of free or cheap options abound. Remember though that you are essentially passing your information to them, and they are passing it on, so it’s probably best to use a trust-worthy service – one that comes up a lot in this conversation is Hide My Ass. I guess it does what it says on the tin!
For someone who feels a little techonologically, erm… left behind… and really just wants to buy something that caught their fancy, this cloak and dagger skulduggery could seem a little over the top. Most of us don’t want to do anything illegal – this is quite a grey area, not really illegal, but generally frowned upon – and using VPNs and Proxy Servers and whatever else may seem like really hard work.
There are ways to more easily circumvent these geoblocks too. For example the Hola! Plugin extension that you download to Google Chrome or Mozilla Firefox, which when toggled, will bypass geoblocking. That’s as simple as clicking a button in your browser before going to a store to make a purchase. Hola! is a free service.
Of course, if all of this is just too much for you, you could simply use a third party delivery service, such as Price USA. If you found something you want in the USA but can’t buy it with your Australian credit card, or can’t have it shipped, you complete their order form, and they’ll send you a quote for buying it on your behalf and shipping it to you. This gives you a few benefits: you don’t have to sign up or pay a monthly fee, you deal with an Australian based company, you pay in Australian dollars at a fixed exchange rate and you get the product you wanted. Of course you’re paying a little more for it, what with the ‘handling fee’ and all, but on some items, it may be worth it. It is a longer way around but probably the best way to circumvent the ‘we don’t ship to’ problem.
Do remember that while blocking your IP address means retailers can be fooled, everything you do online leaves a trail, so it’s best not to hide behind these services for illegal or nefarious purposes – there is still a trace, and many of these service providers will work with the authorities and release your information to them if required!
Personally I think we should be shopping and buying local as much as we can. It’s better for our economy and the planet in general, but there are times when that’s just not the best option for our pockets, or where we can’t find what we are looking for locally, and that’s when being able to find a way around Geoblocking is so valuable. And what’s more, we live in a global economy, with a free market and the ability to see and know what’s happening on the other side of the world. Why dangle that carrot if we never get to taste it?