For any expat, shipping the contents of a home to a new country is a nerve-wracking experience. There is always the worry that items might be stolen, lost or damaged by water or fire.
But in an age where companies can easily be named and shamed online, expats like to assume their belongings will arrive on time and in perfect condition.
But that is not always the case.
“I’d say one out of every three or four international shipments has some sort of claim for damage,” says Curt Clements, chief executive of Dubai-based Move One Inc, which has been in the moving business since 1992 and operates in 41 countries.
“This industry has big problems with people over-promising and under-delivering.
“The biggest issue is payment. As a company, if a private individual is moving out of the country, we have to get payment upfront because there is no way to chase a customer who doesn’t pay.
“On the reverse side, for the customer who has already paid for something, sometimes there is not a great incentive for companies to keep their agreement.”
It means that customers who pay upfront and are told their belongings will arrive by a certain time are often shortchanged.
Briton Andrea Anastasiou, 29, faced this issue when she left Dubai last summer to go travelling.
She shipped personal possessions to her family home in Cyprus with an express cargo delivery for Dh2,350.
“I left it quite last minute and just Googled it,” says Anastasiou, 29, who has since returned to Dubai. “Usually I’m very careful with these things; I go on message boards and try and find a recommendation, but with this I went for the first company that got back in touch with me.”
Anastasiou was told her shipment would take five to seven working days. However, it eventually arrived seven weeks later, when the freelance writer – who was required to pick up the shipment from customs in Cyprus personally – was about to leave the country.
“It was just so stressful. They just left me in the dark for those weeks.To this day, I don’t know what the problem was,” she says, adding she decided not to ship her items back to Dubai as a result.
A sales coordinator for the company in Dubai responsible for the late delivery says all shipments leave the warehouse within three days but problems can arise. “We cannot give a 100 per cent guarantee that a shipment will arrive on time. If there is any problem at customs, any weather issues or flight delays or the shipment is carrying restricted items, then delays can happen, but it is a rare occurrence.”
The uncertainty of shipping goods overseas can make sticking to arrival date estimates tricky for the companies carrying out the work.
No shipping company has a fully fledged office in every country they ship to. They may only have one representative in the receiving nation, which means they have to rely on partners to deliver the goods on time.
While experience helps them keep the arrival date predictions as accurate as possible, once a container leaves the country all manner of things can go wrong.
And for some, there is a risk they won’t get their possessions at all.
Since arriving in Sydney, Australia from Dubai in November last year, Colin Dodd and his family have been forced to rely on handouts from friends to furnish their three-bedroom home; their shipment of furniture, clothes, toys, personal items and electrical goods is yet to be delivered.
Instead, it is sitting on the wharf in Sydney Harbour because the company they hired to ship the goods is embroiled in a financial dispute with shipping agents.
”We moved into our house in January and, while we knew it wasn’t going to be furnished straightaway, we weren’t under the misconception it would take this long,” says Dodd, 38, a British quantity surveyor and a father to two sons, aged six and two.
”We’ve had furniture donated by the community because my son stood up at school and said he couldn’t bring his rugby medals in because they had been stolen.
“Since then, the school community has pretty much furnished the house for us, which has helped because the situation was destroying us. Up until then, we were living on what we had packed into our suitcases last November.”
Dodd was quoted Dh22,400 last year to ship the entire contents of his home from Dubai to Sydney in a 40-foot (12 metre) container.
The packers arrived on November 14, and Dodd was told his items would arrive approximately 49 days later.
However, in January, Dodd realised all was not well, later discovering his shipment was still sitting in Dubai. It eventually arrived in Sydney on February 13. Since then the container has sat on the wharf in Sydney Harbour accruing port charges so far totalling Dh69,000 because of the financial dispute between shipping companies.
He is not alone either. Other former UAE residents have also been affected with goods either sitting on wharves around Australia or being held hostage by third parties to be used as leverage against unpaid fees.
This is the case for Sara Fard, a business development manager from Iran, who moved to Sydney from Dubai last year.
She shipped two cubic metres of her personal belongings, such as winter clothes, kitchen and bed ware and wedding gifts and photos, on September 30. The shipment arrived in Sydney on October 30 but, six months on, it is still in a warehouse.
“At the beginning, I was under the impression it was all going to take two or three weeks, so I just borrowed from colleagues and friends. And then eventually I realised things weren’t going smoothly,” says Fard, 32, who has spent Aus$1,500 (Dh5,690) replacing some of her goods – more than the Aus$1,000 she initially spent on shipping.
For those unsure of which company to use, Clements advises researching online or seeking recommendations from friends.
However, he says all shipping companies are at the mercy of online reviews.
“It’s virtually impossible for a company to squash all bad news about themselves. Everybody is going to have good and bad stuff about their company but, if you see consistent, repetitive problems that people have with a particular company, it may cause you to think twice.”
However, the biggest problems for all customers and shipping companies is damage.
“Delivering a shipment is easy,” says Clements. “If someone sends us a shipment here then we are just unpacking boxes.
“But when you move out of a country, it’s a lot more difficult to get the packing right. Companies have to make sure everything is packed properly, that nothing illegal like spirits is packed into a box and that everything is stacked into a container properly.
“I once heard an average shipping container going to the States from Europe goes over 50,000 waves in its journey. Imagine if things are not packed properly in a container, they’re going to be quite shaken when they get there.”
So what can a customer do if they are caught out by a rogue shipping company?
“Not much. It’s unfortunate but you don’t have much recourse, which is why you have to be wary about a cheap price,” says Clements.
While making sure insurance documents are in place before a shipment leaves is key, Clements suggests hiring a lawyer or involving the local police when items do not arrive. He adds that appealing to a shipping trade association to expel a member can prove fruitless.
”These international associations are pretty much useless. You can complain about a company but the associations act more as trade associations set up to market each other’s business,” says Clements.
However, he says customers need to remember that, wherever their items end up, those items still belong to them.
“If an airline goes bankrupt and has your goods or a customs authority holds onto goods over unpaid fees, those are still your goods and you can demand them back.”
Fard adds: “I can’t decide whether I should forget about the things and just let it be. There isn’t a single day that this doesn’t tear me apart.”
Eight ways to ensure your shipment arrives safely and on time
1. Get more than one quote
Get two or three quotes from different companies but make sure you compare like for like. Make sure the volumes are the same and be wary if someone says they can ship for less, as they may intentionally be underestimating the volume. Remember, these are only estimates so when they come and pack your stuff, they can then turn around and say there is far more than they expected. Also, read the agreement carefully to see what is included. Some unscrupulous companies may not include fees that are standard elsewhere.
2. Do your homework
Social media is a great way to find out if a company is reputable or not. While all companies may have some negative reviews, if one company is repeatedly singled out then alarm bells should go off.
3. Get a recommendation
Any company can look good online but there might be nothing behind that great digital presence. So asking friends for good companies they have used is key.
4. Visit the company’s offices
Do they have an office? If so, walk in and speak to someone about your move. Are the phones ringing? Do there seem to be a significant number of staff? In the moving industry 60 to 70 per cent of business is done in the summer months, so can the company handle that volume of business? Again, ask to see a company’s warehouse. If a company is evasive about where it is, that should raise a red flag.
5. Book early
The moving business is seasonal so shipping during the busy summer can be hard, particularly for air freight as space on aircrafts is limited due to the high volume of tourists. So book early, sign an agreement and confirm your dates.
6. Don’t pack too much yourself
Whatever you pack is listed as “packed by owner” and anything that spikes curiosity such as too many “packed by owner” boxes could cause a customs inspection. Customs will open a shipment, inspect it and then shove everything back in, which can cause damage. Also, don’t pack anything that is not legally allowed in the country you enter, such as alcohol or certain films.
7. Be wary of groupage
Groupage, where different owners’ items are shipped together in one container, can slow a shipment down as a company loses money if it sends half a container. Groupage companies often lower quotes to attract business but items may sit in a warehouse until the container is filled. If you only have a small amount to send, look for companies that specialise in groupage shipments.
8. Remember things can go wrong
Airlines can get grounded, ships delayed, paperwork lost. A whole host of problems can arise so, if it’s a short-term delay, be patient.
* Source: Curt Clements, chief executive, Move One Inc
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