20151023 Charity begins at home – not. And other short stories.

I came into (indirect) contact with the UK’s tax office: their treatment of visiting shoppers is a disgrace. Tourists can reclaim VAT on purchases, right? It’s 20% so it’s a big slice of the headline price. The answer, it turns out is yes, but no. The system is convoluted and stacked against the visitor. First, you have to know, before you buy anything, that you have to ask for a special VAT receipt that includes a VAT reclaim form. But only retailers that are signed up to a special scheme can issue reclaim forms. So before you buy, you have to make sure that the retailer is part of the scheme. There are window stickers but they are not conclusive and, in any case, who has time to look in all the windows of a department store to find out if they have a small sticker in one corner?

Fascinatingly, the reclaim form is rarely issued at the till at the time of payment. To get the receipt, one has to go to a “customer service” desk. Every time I see that I am puzzled: aside from the dubious grammar, surely the purpose of a retail outlet is to provide customers with service at all points in the shop, not only at a desk where everyone who has any query about any product or service shows up. So, customers wanting to reclaim VAT find themselves in a queue while people argue about refunds, defects, even apply for store cards and loyalty cards. For anything other than substantial purchases where the VAT reclaim is a significant sum, there is a huge disincentive to bother collecting the form. Also, some companies apply a minimum spending limit. In the case of John Lewis, it’s GBP75 including VAT.

Worse, for those that prefer to shop online, while combination retailers like Tesco and John Lewis, which have both shops and internet sales, are allowed to operate the VAT reclaim scheme, pure on-line businesses such as Amazon.com and those businesses that use the Amazon platform for sales are not allowed to be part of the scheme.

So, had I bought my new Magimix food processor by telephone order from John Lewis, a VAT reclaim form could have been issued, resulting in a tax saving exceeding GBP50. But I didn’t: I was doing a bulk shop on Amazon and added it to the order. So no VAT refund was allowed.