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Finnish consumers discover Chinese online retailers

Finnish Customs and postal service providers were inundated with 15 million letters and packages from online Chinese retailers last year, a market that is growing by 50 percent each year.

Image: Merja Siirilä / Yle

Chinese online retailers like Wish, DX, Alibaba, LightInTheBox and AliExpress are gaining an increasing consumer base in Finland. Products originating from China have also found their way onto eBay.

Postal carrier Posti's logistics and supply chain director Kaj Kulp says volumes coming into Finland from China keep increasing, accounting for a annual growth rate of approximately 50 percent in the last two years.

"There are no signs of it slowing down, either. It just keeps on growing," he says.

Ellinor Råtts from the western coastal city of Vaasa says she orders a large variety of products from China: from makeup and clothing to mobile phone parts and home decorations. She says that not all of her purchases have been a success, however.

"You need to look carefully at the measurements under the photo if you order clothes because they are usually much smaller," she says.

Cheaper versions of designer products

It is common knowledge among savvy consumers that some of the products sold on Chinese online shops are cheap knockoffs of other products. The news agency Reuters noted (siirryt toiseen palveluun)that the official Chinese news agency Xinhua admitted as much in 2015 when it reported that more than 40 percent of goods sold online in China the year before were either counterfeits or of bad quality.

The e-commerce giant Alibaba out of China is still recovering from being blacklisted for fake merchandise in the US.

In Finland some online customers are expressly looking for cheaper versions of the popular Swedish-made Kånken rucksack, for example, or Finnish designer Minna Parikka's high-priced bunny-eared shoes. Råtts says she's not one of them.

"I haven't bought any pirated copies of things. I would like a Kånken bag, but I would prefer to buy the genuine article," she says. 

Strangely shaped packages

The new trend presents a challenge for Finland's postal carrier Posti, as the shipments from China are hardly standardized. 

"They're oddly-shaped bundles and pouches and plastic bags with the address slapped on the side. This means they have to be hand sorted, while normal letters are sorted by machine. We receive the same compensation for our work, but our costs are higher," says Kulp.

Sending a product from China to Finland costs a few dozen cents. Returning it means spending many times that amount. Posti is paid a distribution fee for delivering the packages, but it is nowhere near enough to cover expenses. These processing fees are agreed upon every four years at a postal congress.

"Altering agreements is a very slow-going process. Hundreds of countries attend, and everyone tries to gain allies and partners to correct things. Although next time, this shouldn't be hard because this has become a problem for every European country," Kulp says.

"And when we're talking about 15 million deliveries, this is no small amount of money at stake," he adds.

Illegal and counterfeit goods

Finnish Customs has also noticed a rapid uptick in the amount of packages entering the country from China, even if it keeps no statistics on the country of origin of the items that pass through.

"It's a considerable percentage. The volume of items from China to Finland has grown substantially, as has the volume of items arriving in Finland from China that are bound for Russia," says Kirsi Taipale, senior customs official at Finland's Airport Customs.

Over 46 million packages weighing more than two kilograms arrive as air freight to Finland in a year, a vast sum that needs to be checked for potentially fraudulent or illegal content.

"You could always say we don't have enough resources, but we also need to develop or monitoring technology," Taipale says.

Passing things off as samples or gifts

She says it is also very common for some retailers to claim that the products they ship are samples or gifts, to avoid paying the necessary value added tax.

"It is very rare that a private person receives a gift from a company, so they are generally bought and sold products," Taipale explains.

Finnish Customs confiscate many kinds of medicines regularly. The Customs officer reminds possible buyers that European Economic Area rules prohibit importing drugs and medicines from outside the EU/EEA area, even if the person making the purchase has a valid prescription.

But one of her main concerns is the cross-border trade in cosmetics and vitamins. She says that as most of the Chinese products are counterfeit, there is no guarantee of their quality or their safety.

"I suppose most people think that nothing bad will ever happen to them in today's world."