Monday 2 December 2013

Free Shop until you drop in Uruguay!

The town of Rivera is located at the Northern Border of Uruguay with the Brazilian State of Rio Grande do Sul. Porto Alegre, a World Cup host city is another 500km further on across the Pampas of Latin America, where the Gauchos raise the cattle for the churrascos or parrilladas (beef barbeque), that make the region so famous.

But, most foreigners who visit Brazil next year will be unaware of a local obsession and will certainly not be joining the queue of traffic full of Brazilians heading south to the border, to shop until they drop.

The journey is the equivalent of driving from Nice to Paris or London to Glasgow, but mainly on single carriage roads and it is not for the faint-hearted at busy times. But, the rewards for Brazilians can be huge, when a bottle of whisky can be up to 40% cheaper than the local store in Porto Alegre.

Main Street Rivera Uruguay
Rivera is a sleepy Uruguayan border town that shares a park and a street with Livramento on the Brazilian side, the only reason you would know which country you are in, is the language on the storefronts. 

Rarely does one find a border crossing with no apparent Immigration post or Custom clearance area, you just walk across the street and you are shopping in Uruguay, often at half the price of Brazil. In fact, there are Customs controls when returning to Brazil, but these are random checkpoints on the highways. 

Nobody in their right mind would buy goods in Brazil to take to Uruguay, due to the price difference, so the Spanish speaking side is somewhat more relaxed.

In Latin America, the “Free Shop” is the equivalent name to Europe’s “Duty Free” and in Rivera many  Travel Retailers are present, but only Duty Free Americas (DFA) come from outside Latin America.

Within a 200 metre walk down the main street, you can find every global Perfume or Cosmetic Brand for sale, just the same for whisky, spirits or liqueurs. The wine business is huge, dominated by Uruguayan, Argentinian and Chilean reds sold at a 25% discount to Brazil.

Free Shop for Duty Free Shopping

Luxury brand sunglasses and most known watches were no cheaper than European airport stores, although probably still a bargain for most Brazilians.

But, the real market is in household and electrical goods, with most stores offering air conditioning units, kitchen appliances such as microwaves, or ventilation fans on offer at two for one. The traditional English electric kettle is available on every street corner, sold by the street vendors who can also provide a lifetime supply of socks, underpants or thermos flasks.

Cheese and wine specialities
Smartphones or “cellulares” as the Brazilians call them, were very conspicuous by their absence, apart from a few generic copies.

In this location, there is a grey area between what is really tax-free and what is just cheap. When asked, nobody really knew the answer, nor cared to clarify, they just wanted to sell and knew that prices had to be below Brazil.

One market sector, which is rare in the conventional duty-free market, is the sale of Food and Condiments. In Rivera there is a specific street, housing six or seven stores, who specialise in cheeses, herbs, sauces and other foods. Not often do you see a promotion for Heinz Ketchup in an airport duty free shop, but it demonstrates the excessive prices in Brazil when people are willing to drive 500km to buy ketchup!

The final product range that stood out was the sale of bicycles and mopeds. Again, with the ambiguous tax status of some stores, it was not clear as to whether these products were actually sold free of taxes or not. Nor was it clear how they were transported home or pass through Customs with only a US$300 limit per person, but they wouldn’t be so obviously on sale, if there was no market for them.

US Dollars $300 Duty Free Allowance for Brazil
What was obviously not on sale are cigarettes and other tobacco products, because the Uruguayan Government have now restricted smoking, even to the point that it is illegal to smoke in your own car. So, Rivera and the Uruguayan border is not the place for smokers to be.

The overall impression of shopping in Rivera is that it would be a wasted journey for tourists, except for those that reside in Brazil where prices are way above the neighbouring countries.

To find more information about Duty Free shops at the border, check before you cross at 

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