This Digital Startup Is Stamping Out The ‘Tax-Free Shopping’ Scam
Tratto da Forbes.com (24/11/2019)
I was awestruck last year when I visited Milan’s Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, the most famous and perhaps the most beautiful shopping mall in the world. Few can resist gawping upon entering this masterpiece of neoclassical architecture, with its sweeping mosaic tiles, palazzo-style facades and huge iron and glass dome. An even bigger shock awaits ordinary folk who glance at the prices in the posh fashion outlets lining its streets. But not everyone is left aghast. For some tourists the Galleria Vittorio is a place to spend, not gaze. And for non-Europeans, in particular, the splurging comes with the expectation of a 22% VAT refund at the airport. Yet few tourists receive their dues. By the time retailers and middlemen have had their fun, these shoppers are lucky to get 14% back. And it’s a problem that affects more than just super-rich visitors to Milan.
Enter Stamp: a digital startup that wants to do for tax-free shopping what Revolut, a challenger bank, did for overseas debit-card purchases. Both fintech companies were borne out of frustration with pre-internet, legacy processes that impose arbitrary fees on consumers. Revolut’s raison d’être is tackling the misconception that it costs your bank a single cent to convert your dollars into euros or pounds. Stamp’s is challenging the idea that tax rebates somehow belong to the people who complete the paperwork for them.
Until now, tax-exempt visitors from outside the EU have paid VAT in city shops before claiming a refund when they fly home. Retailers have little incentive for doing this after-sales paperwork, so they outsource the responsibility to agencies like Global Blue and Planet Payment. They in turn work with currency-exchange firms like Travelex at the airport. This triumvirate of bureaucracy creates three mouths to feed. The retailers take a fee for stamping a receipt and filling in a form; the agencies get paid for checking that Customs have validated the documents and releasing the cash; and the currency firms bask in their usual exorbitant exchange rates. Most who try to bypass the system meet a wall of non-cooperation, says Stefano Fontolan, Stamp’s co-founder. Chinese tourists – the biggest spenders on the continent – may fare the worst as merchants know they will struggle to chase unsettled claims from home. “In fashion companies there are even guidelines explicitly stating that only Swiss or European nationals [living abroad] can be offered the best service,” he alleges, referring to up-front commission waivers. “And only if they insist.”
A better solution, clearly, is for merchants not to collect taxes that are not due in the first place. Stamp achieves this by striking its own partnerships with shops–more than 1,000 so far in Italy and Austria–which submit digital invoices through its platform. The passport data in these invoices is then paired with credit card details and fed into the new e-invoicing systems operated by the Italian and Austrian tax authorities. By processing sales in this way, retailers can offer direct tax relief at the point of purchase. The UK is among the countries working to roll out similar platforms. That’s bad news for the likes of Global Blue, Planet Payment and Travelex. But it’s good news for wealthy (and not-so-wealthy) shoppers, who will save money; for retailers, who can expect higher sales thanks to lower advertised prices; and for governments, whose tourism sectors benefit hugely from the allure of tax-free shopping.
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