Importing with Aramex Global Shopper – so much potential, but horrible service

Let’s face it: It is impossible to trust the South African Postal Service with any delivery – my “priority express” parcel from the US was shipped middle of August and can not be traced. Although SAPO has Mark Barnes as the new CEO, judging from his Twitter account @mark_barnes56, he seems to be more focused on holidays instead of making any drastic changes to how SAPO should operate.

I don’t think any sane person would order anything of value from SAPO as there is a 90% chance that the item will be lost and there is a good 100%-chance that the item will never be delivered on time.

During my recent hobby project I needed Ubiquiti network equipment which was extremely expensive to source locally (about twice the overseas price) and I then discovered that I could use Aramex Global Shopper (AGS) as a freight-forwarding service to get products delivered which typically do not ship to South Africa. AGS works fairly simple:

  • You sign up (FNB customers can do this for free, alternatively there are also discount codes where the life-time membership will only cost USD 10)
  • You receive your “own” postal address for a number of countries (UK, US, Germany, France, China etc)
  • You order for example from Amazon US and then deliver to your AGS postal address in the US
  • The parcel will arrive at the overseas AGS depot. They scan and weigh the shipment, take a picture of the parcel and then send a request to their Johannesburg office (the tracking status will be “Shipment on Hold” and “Record Created”). The US AGD depot only works regular working hours – so if a parcel arrives on the weekend, they will cage it, but only upload/create the request for the Johannesburg office on Monday (if you are unlucky, and your parcel arrives later on a Friday at the overseas depot, your shipment will remain unprocessed for at least 3 days)
  • The AGS Johannesburg office also only work weekdays and when it is their turn to process the request from the overseas depot, the status changes to “Shipment on hold
  • The Johannesburg staff then click some buttons and eventually you will get the “Upload invoice“-request. The invoice is used for customs clearance and it is important that you ensure that the invoice carries the correct items and value. Customs will look at the invoice total which is an issue if your order was split into multiple shipments – in this case upload the invoice, but mask out the total and only highlight the items in the shipment to avoid wrong customs fees.
  • After you have uploaded the invoice and once the Johannesburg office sends a response back to the depot, your parcel will be assigned to a plane and loaded (sometimes this is within 24 hours, but most of the times I have waited up to 3 business days). Your status will change to “Departed Operations Facility – from overseas depot
  • The “Upload invoice“-request seems to happen quite frequently even after the invoice was uploaded. This seems to be a known issue as AGS confirmed that duplicate messages should just be ignored.
  • After uploading the invoice and while your shipment is in transit you are requested to pay for shipment. I would pay particular attention to the weight and calculated shipping costs. There are cases where items are weighted wrong. On my AGS account, the auto-payment of shipping costs does not work, and despite raising the issue 2 weeks ago, I still have not received a response.
  • Once the shipment arrives, there is a “black hole” and it is a mystery (hello customs clearance) how and why it takes so long to go through customs. Amazon manages to get shipments through customs with a few hours, but Aramex sometimes takes days (it also does not help that no-one works weeekends either). If the value is less than R500, the shipment will in most cases go through customs quickly (or sometimes even bypass it). You are supposed to pay customs (if applicable) and in all instances VAT (14%). Be aware that sometimes AGS loads the wrong classification of the shipment which can introduce high charges (i.e. computer electronics is VAT only, whereas phone-accessories incurs VAT and 7% customs)
  • There are also cases where customs has some issue with the shipment and your status will read “Awaiting customer instruction” – again, no-one could explain to me what this really means (I can just think that AGS forgot something in the clearance process and had to provide it to customs)
  • Once your shipment has cleared customs, you will be asked to make a second payment – this time for customs/VAT.
  • Once you see the status “Received at operations facility” (remember to check locations, sometimes shipments go from US to Dubai and then Johannesburg) your parcel is almost in your hands. This status means that it has arrived at AGS facility and will be readied for delivery. It typically takes maximum of 2 business days for your parcel to arrive. If the status changes to this on a Friday there is ZERO CHANCE that you will receive it before Monday. Most likely you will get it only on Tuesday.
  • A status of “Shipment Update – shipment received in vc cage” is a bit confusing as it normally means it is a high-value item held at the AGS depot prior to delivery. But it can also mean that it is still stuck at customs, awaiting customs clearance.
  • Sometimes you will get a status “Shipment Update – shipment sent to desptach floor in vc cage” (yes, they spelling of “desptach” is their spelling bees at work) which means that it is at the AGS facility in Linbro Park and the parcel should be delivered within 24 hours.

The fastest parcel I received via AGS was 8 days (from the time it is delivered to their US depot). The slowest takes up to 14 days. The most frustrating part is that without manual escalation and phone calls there is little progress (in fairness, the US office is super efficient).

The above sounds beautiful, especially since you can now order from some more exotic mom-and-pop shops all over the world who usually charge insanely expensive delivery fees, only ship via postal mail (means the parcel gets either stolen or lost) or do not ship outside of their country at all.

AGS customer service and processing is inefficient

The web-interface is just outright horrible. It lacks any sort of detail. What makes it even worse is the poor processing and customer service. In December I used Amazon Prime (free same-day priority shipping) and placed a few orders with delivery to my AGS New York address and the following pretty much explains where things go horribly wrong:

My experience with Aramex Global Shopper has been a complete disaster so far – I placed 5 orders with Amazon using Amazon Prime which will deliver either same day or next day for free. Out of the 5 parcels:

  • Parcel-1: Delivered to AGS on 27/12. It had two pictures (one was for another customer). It took two days for them to process the uploaded invoice. It took another 24 hours to acknowledge credit card payment. Delivery might happen tomorrow (3rd January 2017)
  • Parcel-2: Delivered to AGS on 29/12. Picture was taken. Invoice uploaded 29/12. Still shows “Need invoice”. No idea when parcel will be delivered / processed.
  • Parcel-3: Delivered to AGS on 29/12. Picture was taken. Invoice uploaded 29/12. Still shows “Need invoice”. No idea when parcel will be delivered / processed.
  • Parcel-4: Delivered to AGS on 30/12. No picture of parcel. Invoice uploaded 30/12. Still shows “Need invoice”
  • Parcel-5: Delivered to AGS on 31/12. No picture of parcel. Invoice uploaded 31/12. Still shows “Need invoice”

The website’s tracking is just horrible and lacks any sort of detail. Perhaps there is no more detail, but how can I understand why there has been no movement of the delivery for the parcel below, especially since I uploaded the invoice within hours of delivery to AGS:

When I phoned AGS South Africa today, it really appears that there is no additional tracking information available as the call-centre agent could not assist further. I was then advised to phone AGS Customs/Clearance department to find out why the parcel is “stuck” – to be honest, the AGS call-centre agent should do this for me as this very much reminds me of the SAPO days where one would have to hunt down a parcel for days (or to “convert” that international tracking number to a local tracking number in order to trace a delivery).

While the customer service agent did not sound very helpful and could not be really bothered to assist, if AGS could sort out the processing delays, their service would really attract more customers. I do understand that we are in “holiday mood” during the December period, but AGS has acknowledged that there offices are operational between 27/12 and 31/12 and I would have expected that my delivered parcels during that timeframe had been processed accordingly – unable to process 4 out of 5 parcels equates to a 80% failure rate. 60% of my parcels did not have a captured image either. Statistically it is impossible that I am the “odd customer” out. Perhaps the AGS staff working during those days are not as diligent as staff working on other days? Who knows? No-one can explain!

If AGS upped their game and actually processed and cleared parcels more efficiently, this service would really rock. Right now I think it is slightly above SAPO level and the only difference is that there is someone accountable for the processing (whereas with SAPO you are simply out of luck).

Some gotcha’s and where it can get expensive

Amazon and other online merchants will typically get orders out as quickly. This means that they will split an order into multiple parcels if necessary. It is important to understand that AGS does not collate parcels (other providers such as MyUS do) – this can become expensive very quickly as AGS charges shipping fees on weight: R 195 for first 1/2kg and R 99 for additional 1/2kg. Other providers will typically apply a discount when multiple parcels are shipped at the same time, but AGS does not seem to do this (FNB customers do however get some discount on shipping fees as well if paying via credit card).

Each order will incur shipping fees, import duties and VAT and it is important to consider this. Even more so when importing clothing or perfume as duties are sky-high. Despite the additional charges, most orders still work out cheaper than purchasing locally (just remember that most imported products are considered “grey import” and will not benefit local repair and warranty).

Many other users of AGS have also raised clearance delay issues (delays in processing uploaded invoices) and my delays do not seem to be related to the busier holiday season. I have separately raised the issues with AGS and hope that someone will explain the nature of the problems and how AGS will resolve the issues going forward.

Aramex South Africa explains the process

After reaching out to AGS, I received the following explanation on how their processing works:

Please be advised that once your shipment arrives at our Depots overseas, it normally takes at least 2 days for it to be added to your account, and that is when you are then prompted to upload the invoice. Upon this been done, it generates a case which we update at our Offices in Johannesburg, and then the origin ensures that your shipment is on the next available flight to Johannesburg. Unfortunately I cannot give you a time frame on that, as we do not know their schedule for this.

In the interim, your shipment status will stay “On Hold – Need Invoice” until your shipment is in transit, and your Shipping Charges will be uploaded for you to make payment online. When it arrives in Johannesburg, it will undergo Customs Clearance, which normally takes 2-3 working days to clear, and if your invoice total is above R500.00, it will be considered High Value, and may take a little longer to clear. We cannot always advise when your shipment will be released as Customs work at their own discretion.

Once your shipment has been cleared, your Customs Charges are loaded as well, so you can make payment online, and it will also move to our Linbro Offices. Upon payment being received, we will then release the shipment for delivery.

It does appear that there are some inefficiencies in the process. In all my deliveries to the overseas depot, the invoice was loaded within hours of getting the Amazon delivery notification. I am not sure why it would take at least two days to receipt, photograph and record a delivery.

I can fully appreciate a delay in shipment from the depot as this will depend on available flights and obviously readying the parcel for forwarding. I can however not understand why the receipting could take a number of days. It also appears that Depots and the South African counterpart only work regular working hours and do not work on weekends. This then requires some juggling to have parcels delivered when someone can receipt it at the depot and then someone in South Africa can push the right buttons to forward the parcel.

To me it appears that this whole process could be substantially streamlined and I am a bit puzzled why this has not been done – I understand that Logistics is complex, but if other companies can get this right, surely AGS should be able to do the same. Example: Amazon will pre-clear parcels and will even refund custom-charges – my Amazon parcel ordered on 23rd December arrived on 28th December – now that is impressive!

5th January 2017: Several days later and still no movement of my parcels. The one parcel landed on 1st January and still has not processed through clearance (another shipment arriving from Amazon directly processed the same day). Only after manual intervention by AGS was I able to pay shipment for three parcels. The 4th parcel displays shipping charges but does not allow payment, as the payment button has gone “missing”:

Despite explaining to AGS customer care that I was able to pay for 3 other shipments they insisted that it is a “browser issue” and got me to clear my cache, change browsers, reset my internet connection and finally reboot my laptop. Eventually they conceded and said that the issue will be escalated with their IT department (which seems to reside in Dubai). That 5th parcel will now be stuck until a payment can be made.