Are grey imports really worth the risk?

Most of us are aware of the perils of buying apparently genuine electronics from non-official suppliers. Purchasing on some websites can be scarcely more reliable than picking up goods off the back of a lorry from someone you met in the pub.

Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge phones have been offered at savings of £90

Ebay does offer a money-back guarantee in most, though not all, circumstances, but that’s scant comfort when the high-end headphones you ordered turn out to be a pair of tin cans glued together in a back-street garage somewhere.

But there is another category of import which can, if you’re careful, yield a genuine bargain.

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The so-called grey market is comprised of genuine products that have bypassed the normal retail channels and made their way to independent dealers – usually, though not exclusively, online.

Cameras, phones, watches and associated accessories are among the small consumer items produced for worldwide consumption, whose distribution channels are controlled by their manufacturers. Typically, each maintains an agent in the UK which handles the local retail network and underwrites the guarantees.

But it’s not unusual for goods intended for other markets to find their way here; indeed, there is a regular supply. There are even more available offshore, held by agents who will happily ship them directly to you, for substantially less than the standard price. Galaxy S7 Edge mobile phones by Samsung have been offered at £530, a saving of £90, and iPad Pro tablets for £650 instead of £800.

Is this legal? It depends on what exactly you’re buying, but almost certainly it is. If you buy from abroad, it is you, rather than from the manufacturer’s main agent, who becomes the importer, and that’s perfectly in order so long as you pay the necessary duty. Only if you are importing large numbers of a product that the manufacturer actively wants to keep out of the UK are you likely to incur their displeasure.

However, you should check the small print carefully to determine whether VAT is included in the price. If not, you will liable for it on receipt. You may also have to pay a fee for getting the package through customs.

If you buy from a UK specialist in grey items, you can leave the importing to them and buy in pretty much the same way as you would normally. You will probably find the manufacturer’s guarantee in the UK invalid, but several of these unofficial suppliers offer warranties of their own, underwritten by an insurer. Companies like this often deal in cameras and other goods for the knowledgeable, hobbyist market and are highly regarded in their field. All the same, they tend to be warehousing operations, not friendly neighbourhood retailers.

Grey imports are never going to be entirely risk-free. Phones in particular must be suitable for use on UK networks, and any goods should ideally be compatible with batteries and other accessories you might want to pick up later.

But you can take precautions; if you pay with Paypal, you are protected if the goods are not as described, even if the seller is outside the reach of British law. This is particularly helpful if you are sent an out-and-out fake by someone who claimed it to be genuine.

The general rule of thumb is to look for feedback from customers in the UK that strikes you as genuine. If you can’t find any, move quickly on, and keep in mind that if a price looks too good to be true, even by grey standards, it almost certainly is.