The words 'Tax Free' is music to any shopper's ears. Many brands and retailers, in tourist hot spots, were looking towards 2021 with optimism. With the UK finally severing ties with the European Union, there was an expected boon for duty free shopping. High spending visitors from the EU would join the rest of the world in being able to claim back VAT from many goods purchased. While they still will be able to, HM Treasury has announced changes to Tax Free Shopping, and they are proving to be deeply unpopular within the retail industry.
So, what’s changing? From January 2021, VAT refunds for overseas visitors in British shops will be removed. Overseas visitors will still be able to buy items VAT-free in store and have them sent direct to their overseas addresses, while the costly system of claiming VAT refunds on items they take home in their luggage will be ended. HM Treasury is also ending tax-free sales in airports of goods such as electronics and clothing for passengers travelling to non-EU countries, following concerns that the tax concession is not always passed on to consumers in the airport. In some instances these tax-free goods are brought back into the country by UK residents, putting high street retailers at a disadvantage.
HM Treasury is clearly expecting duty free shopping to be busier and is therefore no longer willing to incur the expense of running a scheme that ultimately costs them even more money. Tourists with a permanent residence in a non-EU country have been able to claim their VAT back on goods over £30 on production of their receipts. Many department stores and airports installed lounges where shoppers could claim back the value added tax on production of proof of identity and a completed tax form.
Currently, you can get a VAT 407 form from the retailer when buying your purchase They might ask for proof that you’re eligible, for example your passport. You show the goods, the completed form and your receipts to customs at the point when you leave the UK or EU. Customs will approve your form if everything is in order. You then take the approved form to get paid.
Companies, such as Global Blue or ChangeGroup, partner with stores worldwide, and offer a service for tourists to claim back the tax. The refund paid is the VAT minus the company's 'service fee'. Many people have complained about these high fees and hidden costs like service fees, currency conversion fees, payment fees etc.
According to Visit Britain, international tourists spent £6bn on shopping in the UK in 2018. Of those transactions, £3.5bn were registered as tax free sales, although VAT was only reclaimed on £2.5bn. From January 2021, visitors will be able to buy the same goods, but will no longer be able to take them away with them there and then if they want to claim back the VAT. They will have to be sent or couriered by the retailer to their home address, wherever they live in the world. Retailers are worried that this new system will put many tourists off buying. Being able to take your purchase away instantly is one of the joys of shopping. It also means that many will be liable for import duties or taxes in their home countries rather than smuggle it through in their luggage. Some countries have very high import taxes negating the VAT saving. For example, in China, the ‘Table of Tax Rates on Personal Luggage of Passengers and Personal Postal Parcels Arriving in China” is 50% for watches and timepieces valued over 10,000 yuan (About £1150). Under 10,000 the rate is 30%.
Walpole, an organisation representing 270 of the UK's finest brands, has sent a letter to the UK Chancellor this month and has joined forces with New West End Company along with the British Retail Consortium (BRC) and the Association of International Retail (AIR), to express their deep concern and shock over the decision.
It said “it is extremely concerned by the decision’s inevitable impact, not only in London and other key UK shopping destinations for affluent international visitors, but also on the sector’s nationwide manufacturing hubs, where otherwise sustainable skilled employment will be affected by a further contraction in sales.
Right - ChangeGroup at Bicester Village
“The Covid-19 crisis has already dramatically reduced numbers of international visitors to Britain, and other European cities, and the removal of tax-free shopping for anyone visiting the UK will leave Britain at a profound competitive disadvantage post-Brexit.”
Walpole CEO, Helen Brocklebank, said “International visitors are fundamental to the UK luxury sector’s recovery. Right now, the Government needs to be doing all it can to underline the allure of UK PLC and accelerating efforts to encourage affluent visitors to return to our shores rather than actively discouraging them with rulings like this. Globally famous brands like Burberry, Johnstons of Elgin, Harrods, Glenfiddich whisky and Hendrick’s Gin created a ‘jewel in the crown’ sector that was growing at nearly 10% each year before the pandemic, worth £48 billion to the UK economy. £4.5 billion in sales was generated by international visitors alone. Paris ranks as number one destination for luxury shoppers, closely followed by London. We will have no chance of retaining that position or becoming number one unless this decision is reversed.”
The important thing to note is that the government has not removed tax-free shopping, it is just making it harder for people to avoid import duties and avoid tax in their own jurisdiction.
The UK has already lost vast amounts of tourist spending and anything that looks like it could diminish it further is being met with shock and negativity. The UK will become the only European country not to offer VAT-free shopping for international visitors, but it is hard to argue a case without admitting that many tourists take part in tax avoidance. HM Treasury is expecting a higher number of tax claims when EU tourists join those outside of the EU in being able to claim and doesn’t want to shoulder the increased costs of administering this scheme.
In the new scheme, the VAT will be taken off by the retailer at the till. This new scheme requires added logistics, which adds extra costs for the retailer or seller.
One of the big questions will be, who will pay for carriage to the purchaser’s destination? Plus, installing a trusted form of delivery, in what could be very expensive goods, and making sure they arrive where and when they are supposed to arrive and making the consumer comfortable with that. It will surely have added insurance costs.
As for the change in ending tax-free sales in airports of goods such as electronics and clothing for passengers travelling to non-EU countries, the once bright spot of retail, pre-COVID, the airport, will no longer be as attractive to fashion retailers who can’t promote these duty-free savings. Airports have, over recent years, become shopping centres with runways and this will surely dent sales.
The retail industry could offer to pay the costs of running the tax refund system. It could add a surcharge to each purchase where the VAT is reclaimed. Unfortunately, due to the drop in tourists numbers, it will be harder to compare the effects of this new scheme with the old and whether this is reducing spending overall. When tourists are explained the new scheme, will they decide to buy elsewhere? Pay for the goods and have them shipped to get the VAT back? Or, simply swallow the full retail price?
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I said it at the start of this year if you’re a brand or retailer and you can make it through 2019 and into 2020 then you’re probably going to be alright. This year has been tough, very tough, and we’re well into the most important segment of the year for some retailers. It’s do or die for many brands who are on their uppers while trying to flog customers theirs.
This period of physical retail contraction is more painful the larger you are and we’ve waved goodbye to some very well known retailers and brands this year which could no longer survive under the perfect storm of online competition, retail saturation and squeezed prices, increase in the minimum wage, Extinction Rebellion/consumption debate, Brexit uncertainty and a snap General Election, cost of returns, prolonged discounting and high business rates and rents.
Christmas has always been a crucial time for retailers, but if it’s your single focus and main time to make profits then you need to rethink your business model and marketing. Many businesses with this old fashioned idea are many of those disappearing or have disappeared. But, it still matters, and a bad Christmas period will see many more retail business announcing their demise come the new year.
The lead up hasn’t been good, but a lot of spend could be skewed by the juggernaut of Black Friday. Sales decreased by 1.3% in September 2019, the worst September since BRC (British Retail Consortium) records began in 1995.
The following month, high street shoppers bought 0.6 per cent more goods in October 2019, representing a drop from 1.3 per cent sales growth recorded in October 2018, but still representing the retail industry’s best performance since April, according to figures compiled by the BRC and KPMG. Looking at a three-month average, which allows for month-to-month fluctuations, total in-store sales of non-food items dropped 3.6 per cent, while food sales grew 1.6 per cent (or 0.5 per cent on a like-for-like basis).
According to Barclaycard, "consumer spending in November (2019) showed a muted 0.9% growth year-on-year as Brits plan for a frugal festive season”.
So far, so bad, but Black Friday was the biggest ever. According to retail intelligence firm Springboard, retail footfall on Black Friday was up 3.3% in comparison with the same day in 2018, with shoppers mostly hitting the shops after work. Black Friday spending rose 16.5% on 2018, Barclaycard said. They said spending was higher as of 10am that morning and “sustained” that high level throughout the day. They said the number of transactions then reached a “new peak” between 1pm and 2pm on Black Friday. Barclays, which has been monitoring real-time transaction data for Black Friday, processes almost £1 in every £3 spent in the UK.
“We recorded a new peak of 1,184 transactions per second between 1pm and 2pm, which is up on last year’s 1,087 by around nine per cent,” Rob Cameron, CEO of Barclaycard Payments told City A.M.
“The volume of transactions has been up all week and in terms of purchasing, we have seen a high level on spending from midnight all the way through.
“This is fantastic news for retailers, with our data showing that transactions have also been strong throughout the week,” says Cameron. “With many retailers spreading their deals out throughout the week, they will be encouraged to see this hasn’t cannibalised sales volumes on Black Friday itself.” he told City AM.
The volume of transactions on Black Friday rose 7.2% year-on-year, while the volume of transactions on Cyber Monday - the following Monday - was so far up 6.9%.
While this discounting could affect margins, it appears the hype of Black Friday and perceived discounts is something retailers are taking advantage of. The consumer title, Which? warned that few real deals were available, with most goods cheaper or available for the same price at other times. It found that just 4 of 83 products they studied last year were cheaper during the Black Friday promotions.
Black Friday benefited from falling on or just after payday this year with many people paid on 28th of the month. Black Friday has been big, but has is been big enough? The last few years saw many retailers see a wash of sales just before Christmas which allowed them to limp on into the next year. It appears that retailers are finally understanding how to play the Black Friday game; getting rid of unwanted stock while holding firm on in-demand products. It will be interesting to see the level of returns and this giant spike can be difficult to manage, especially for smaller retailers which less stock holdings.
The retail figures show a consumer holding tight until to Black Friday, and it will be interesting to see, now those purse strings have been loosened, whether it continues in the final few weeks until Christmas especially with the distraction of a General Election bang in the middle of that. See you in the next decade?
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The government wants us to save for the future. It makes sense. We’re living long lives and we need to plan for our financial futures if we are going to be able to live more comfortably when we retire. Pensions can be complicated and difficult to understand and, up until a few years ago, people were often asked to actively opt-in to a pension scheme and as such it had a low level of take up.
Things changed with the 2008 Pensions Act, when ‘auto enrolment’ was regarded as the best way to counter apathy and persuade people to get saving. Larger companies started the process back in 2012. Small and micro businesses, employing from one to 50 people, had to have everybody enrolled by February 2018 at the latest. The levels started small with minimum auto-enrolment contributions of 2% (split equally between employee and employer). In April, this year, it rose to 8% (5% employee and 3% employer).
It is estimated auto enrolment has lead up to 10 million people to start saving for their retirement for the first time. This is great news for individuals and society, long term, but for retailers, already seeing sales fall, it is less money in people’s pockets and reduced spending power.
This has all been a long time coming. But, it’s still not enough. People will need to save an even higher percentage of their income. In 2017, the Pensions minister, Richard Harrington, set a target for savers to achieve a £250,000 pension pot by the time they retire. To reach this target, an individual whose salary builds up to £27,000 over their career and saves for 40 years with no breaks would need combined employee and employer contribution levels of 25% says research for Citywire's New Model Adviser® by pensions provider Aviva.
The statutory contributions rate looks like it will rise further, no firm plans have been set just yet, but are we starting to see the affects this new level of saving is having on retail sales?
September 2019 saw the worst retail sales figures since British Retail Consortium (BRC) records began in 1995. Sales decreased by 1.3% in September. Sales decreased by 1.7% on a Like-for-like basis from September 2018, when they had decreased 0.2% from the preceding year. The BRC said the “spectre” of a potential no-deal Brexit is weighing on consumers’ purchasing decisions, but surely higher levels of minimum pension contributions are resulting in lower retail sales?
Pension provider Royal London produced research looking into what would happen if someone who has only contributed the minimum to their pensions under government 'auto-enrolment' rules, decides to draw a state pension as soon as they can and immediately cuts down to part-time work. Royal London defines a ‘gold standard’ retirement - income at retirement is two-thirds of pre-retirement levels - or a ‘silver standard’ retirement - income is half of pre-retirement levels. Someone pursuing a flexible retirement would have to work until they are 79 to achieve the ‘gold standard’. The age comes down to 74 for a worker who defers taking a state pension and maintains full-time hours until they stop working. A worker targeting ‘silver standard’ retirement but who retires gradually would have to work on until they were 69 – or 68 if they defer their state pension and continue in full-time work. The report encourages workers to contribute more than the legal minimum of 8% (combined employee and employer contribution) to a workplace pension. It said a 10% rate allows an individual to retire around three years earlier, while a contribution rate of 12% allows an individual to retire around six years earlier than if they contributed just the minimum
The older you are when you start to save, the higher the contributions will have to be. So someone starting aged 32 should contribute 16% of their salary for the rest of their working life. While 16% may seem a huge commitment, this figure includes your employer's contribution. All employers must 'auto-enrol' their qualifying employees in a workplace pension. Qualifying employees are those that are aged between 22 and State Pension age, earn more than £10,000 a year and work in the UK.
According to a report by Scottish Widows, the average income that people state they will require for comfortable retirement is £23,000 a year and it recommends that 12% of income should be channelled into a pension throughout your working life.
Almost 50 per cent of workers are still not putting away enough to meet those expectations. In 2015, one in five weren’t contributing anything to any pension at all and out of 6,000 workplace schemes more than 5,000 were in deficit. Figures from the Pension Protection Fund in May 2016 showed that the shortfall was a colossal £300 billion.
“In future contribution rates are going to rise. There’s a consensus in the industry that even when we get to 8% that’s still not enough. That can’t be the end and we must not rest on our laurels.” says Emma Douglas, Head of Defined Contribution at Legal and General, told ‘Smart Pension’, a company founded by experienced finance & technology professionals and designed specifically to support UK businesses faced with the challenges of auto enrolment.
“We will need to raise awareness about the importance of saving enough to provide a really comfortable retirement. There may be some pain to come, but I think that once people see their pension pot growing there will be acceptance and engagement. We need to make sure pension statements are transparent and easy to understand.” she says. “Overall, I think auto enrolment has been very positive.”
Tom Selby, senior analyst at AJ Bell told Moneywise: “To put it into perspective, someone earning around £27,000 and paying in the auto-enrolment minimum will see their personal contribution rise from about £500 this year to more than £850 in 2019/20.”
£850 for somebody on a £27,000 income is a chunk of money. It could be a month’s rent. Looking at Millennials and Generation Z already spending significant amounts of their incomes on renting and paying pack student loans, it will put more of a squeeze on their already reduced disposable incomes.
“While for most people this is still not enough to enjoy a comfortable retirement, we are now getting to the stage where some reluctant savers could start to feel the pinch. Rising average pay should help ease the pain, but anyone missing out on a salary hike could well be tempted to prioritise spending today over saving for tomorrow.” he says.
People can choose to opt out at any time. “Anyone thinking of quitting their workplace pension needs to understand that they will be losing out on both tax relief and their employer contribution, which put together double the value of the money they put in. Put another way, opting out of your pension is a bit like taking a voluntary pay cut – so nobody should do it lightly!” he says.
According to Jenny Condron, the ACA's (Association of Consulting Actuaries) chairwoman, this phased increase in contributions is needed to ensure that many more people save sufficient amounts, for both an adequate retirement income and one where they have real choices to spend some of their accumulated savings, as they approach or reach retirement.
She said: “Actions are needed to draw more of those on lower incomes and the self-employed into auto-enrolment levels of contributions, beginning with the gig economy’s quasi-employers.
“Then, from 2025, with due notice having been given, there is the need to gradually phase in rises in total contributions until they reach 12-14% of earnings.”
Minimum contributions were increased overall from 2 to 5 per cent in April 2018, which for 85 per cent of employers didn’t have an adverse impact on scheme participation, the ACA said.
It’s obvious that those on lower incomes have always saved less for their retirement. They are also more sensitive to the increased contributions. Putting 12%-14% of earnings into a pension pot will be difficult for many and sacrifices will have to be made if they decide to stay in the scheme. It could see increasing numbers of people opting out or a marked decrease in disposable incomes. People on lower incomes will have to make a difficult choice. This is very large group of people who weren’t saving before.
More stats show how retail is seeing sales fall. IMRG Capgemini Online Retail Index showed a drop of -22.5% in menswear digital sales year-on-year for September, with overall clothing sales seeing its first negative growth in over two years. Womenswear, footwear and accessories also declined with year-on-year growth rates of -13.3%, -9.8% and -9.0% respectively.
Auto enrolment is a fantastic idea for people’s long-term financial futures. Contemporary retail is in a perfect storm and auto enrolment pensions encouraging an estimated 10 million people to save at least 5% (& rising) of their income for the first time will only increase the squeeze and could be an extra of contributing factor to the current retail malaise. Will the British go from spenders to savers? Retailers will hope not.
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