Clouds are gathering in the sky of cross-border sales to Russia – a market that reached approximately $3 billion in 2013 after years of up to 100% growth. Earlier this week, DHL Express, DPD and FedEx, three international shipment providers, announced the suspension of shipments to Russian consumers, while another courier, UPS, was considering a similar move in the short term.

As a consequence, several dozen foreign Internet stores have been affected. In an exchange with Russian business daily Kommersant, Net-a-Porter.com CEO Mark Sebba confirmed that his group could no longer deliver to Russian clients, but was “doing everything possible to continue working with one of [its] most important markets.”

Other online retailers have remained unaffected: “We are still delivering to Russia as normal,” ASOS stated. “We have zero disruption,” Bay.ru CEO Aaron Block told East-West Digital News.

This Chicago-based cross-border sales operator (recently rebranded to Dostami.ru) has its own delivery system to Russia.

Two customs points affected so far

The announcements from the three international couriers came as reaction to changes in Russian customs clearance practices imposed in two Moscow airports since the beginning of January – changes which have crippled their efficiency (1).

While not new, certain documentation requirements now affecting efficiency adversely in the two airports had been imposed only selectively in the past, in cases where the customs officer suspected that an individual parcel was improperly valued. Based on the experience of Interstice Consulting, the requirements had had an impact on about 5% of the parcels passing through the clearance process.

Other customs points have not been affected so far, confirmed Sergey Podkin of Boxberry, a Russian shipment provider, in an exchange with East West Digital News.

Podkin’s company, along with CDEK, Pony Express and SPSR, continues operating international shipments via these or other customs points.

The operations of the Russian Post and its express delivery subsidiary EMS have not been affected either. These organizations, which benefit from the less demanding customs requirements of the Universal Postal Union, ship more than 95% of e-commerce parcels to Russia, a study by East-West Digital News reveals.

Lobbies against “duty-free e-commerce”

On another front, changes in customs duty exemption rules might seriously affect cross-border sales. Currently, Russian Internet users enjoy tax-free shopping from foreign stores as long as their purchases do not exceed a value of 1,000 euros or a weight of 31 kg per person and per month. Above this limit, purchases are subject to a 30% tax.

Combined with the Russian government’s concern about losing tax revenues, active lobbying from domestic retailers is likely to put an end to this generous tax exemption regime.

Among the fiercest opponents of “duty-free e-commerce” have been Enter.ru and KupiVIP.ru, two members of AKIT, an industry association created in 2012. (KupiVIP, however, has recently launched its own cross-border offers.)

AKIT and the other lobbysts seem to be close to their goal, with the government openly considering lowering the tax exemption level to 150 or 200 euros. Changing the rules, however, requires the agreement of the other member states of the Customs Union, which includes Russia, Belorussia, Kazakhstan and Armenia.

Such measures would certainly not kill cross-border sales, since the average order value is below this level in many product categories. While cheap parcels from Chinese retailers would remain practically unaffected, shipping from Western retailers in the fashion segment, for instance, would likely suffer.

The effect on Russia’s tax revenues and on the domestic e-commerce market – whose volume reached $16 billion last year – remains unpredictable. Russians buy from foreign e-commerce stores not only because of price differences (which are partially offset by shipping fees), but also to access goods that are unavailable on the local market.

The consumer association OZPP and the Facebook group RICN 2.0 have called for a public protest on Feb. 8 in Moscow’s Bolotnaya Square, the site of some of the country’s largest political protests in the wake of the disputed federal elections of 2011. It will be intriguing to compare the size of the crowds mobilized by this issue with those brought out by election fraud.

These organizations have also called for online consumers to boycott KupiVIP and other AKIT members – including, paradoxically, eBay, which they accuse of passiveness on the issue.

(1) For every express parcel clearing through Sheremetyevo and Vnukovo airports, Russian customers must now furnish a copy of their passport with registration, a screenshot of the order details from the online store, a photo of the item(s) ordered, an original bank statement indicating the online store as the payee, an original customs declaration, and a copy of their credit card. In addition, an explanation is required if the delivery address does not match the recipient’s registered address specified in the passport.

Update Jan. 28, 2014

After meeting shipment service providers, the Federal Customs Service announced today that new, simplified customs clearance rules for e-commerce deliveries will be introduced immediately. “Not only will all the problems raised by the shipment companies be solved, but electronic procedures will be introduced in the next two weeks” to make the customs clearance processes even quicker, the Federal Customs Service stated.

  • East-West Digital News will soon release a research study on cross-border sales in association with E-commercefacts.com and the E-Commerce Europe Association. To take part in this research, please click hereTo receive a free executive summary, please mail us to report@ewdn.com.