Tag Archives: amazon

Free shipping: why it sucks for you

I’m not kidding.

In the modern-day online economy, free shipping has almost become a baseline expectation. I am told that if I’m selling online, and I don’t offer free shipping, I might as well write off every customer under forty. That is tantamount to telling me that every customer under forty is innumerate.

I don’t believe that. But I do believe that some customers, at all ages, refuse to do the simplest arithmetic.

To be fair, free shipping is an acceptable deal–for one item, from one vendor at a time. To be clear: that makes it a wash, not an advantage.

(This, by the way, is the first in a new category of posts at The ‘Lancer: “Robin Hood.” I intend to use this category for public service articles meant to expose ripoffs and scams, and to suggest creative ways to make life worse for ripoff and scam artists. Pyle’s The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood was my absolute favorite book growing up, and over half a century later is still a great inspiration to me.)

The ripoff comes when you buy more than one item from the same vendor. The more you buy, the more you inflate the vendor’s profit. The better a customer you are, the more you suffer. The vendor counts upon you to be an idiot. He hopes you will think: if there’s free shipping, hell, why not stock up?

Let’s take a fairly common vintage baseball card as an example. Suppose it costs $1.50 with free shipping with Vendor Joe. With another, Vendor Jill, it costs $0.75 with $0.75 also for shipping. In the second case, if you buy multiple items, Jill may readily agree to combine your shipping costs to a degree. (Since this is Jill’s moment of victory, if Jill did not, Jill would demonstrate the intellect of a prehistoric fern.) Joe’s shipping charges can’t go below zero, so Jill is sure to be the better deal. No matter what, when you get this so-called free shipping, you are absolutely being charged for the freight; the cost is just relocated to the item’s price.

That card costs either vendor fifty cents to mail, but appearances drive this whole monte game. In essence, Jill charges you the fifty cents plus a modest handling fee. Jill appears petty and pecuniary and nickel-and-diming. For gods’ sake, her shipping costs as much as her merch! What does she think I am, independently wealthy? Joe looks as if he waves a magnanimous hand and throws in the cost of delivery, just to do you a favor, fagedaboudit, good ol’ Joe.

Same amount. Same shipping. Same economics–except that you like Joe better. He’s the free shipping person! And when you buy two cards, your brain may think that the more you buy, the more you save, but you can see from this description that it is the other way around: the more you buy, the more you overspend. Suppose you buy ten cards in that price range. Obviously, they cannot all be shipped for one $0.75 shipping charge, but they surely can be shipped for far less than $7.50. Since Jill has not been lobotomized, she knows it costs less than $7.50. Jill also gives you credit for not having been lobotomized, so she presumes you know this as well. So she charges you perhaps $4.00, which still covers her overall shipping plus a little extra: total, $11.50.

Joe can’t lower shipping costs below free, so unless he offers a volume discount, his ten cards cost you $15.00. And whatever his volume discount, it is unlikely to beat Jill’s simple and fair charge.

Fagedaboudit.

Why doesn’t everyone go to Jill for their bulk buys? Joe counts upon your negative emotional reaction to Jill’s method, which appears to be dinging you for every little thing à la carte. (You mean I have to pay for extra sauces?) Also, you have to ascertain in advance what her policy will be, and that requires icky work-like stuff like reading and asking her questions. There is also addition and subtraction in play, which is math, thus even ickier and difficult and wasn’t on the test. It’s all so hard, and you just want to be done! The five-second instant gratification cycle has passed! Joe is hosing you, but you like him better, because he doesn’t quibble over petty stuff like shipping charges. Bing, bang, done, oh, I have a text coming in.

It’s a shell game. Ever seen those? Pick which coconut half (or overturned bowl, whatever) the ball is under. You always win the first time, just like a monte game. Or a nearby shill steps up and ‘wins’ to make it look good. When there’s more on the line, there is no way you win because the target has been moved in a way your eye will not track.

For one item, free shipping is a wash. Take it for gospel that the vendor pays for and is being paid for the shipping, whatever shell the money is under. Beyond one item, with the same vendor, the equation is simple:

The more you shop, the more you’re milked.

Joe really, really, really hopes you will never figure this out.

Ah, but what if Jill screws you by only discounting shipping a little bit?

First, this would defeat our non-lobotomized premise about Jill, because Jill would be stupid not to know she’s dealing with someone who has figured out the shell game and has chosen her on the logical presumption of better value. Jill is honest enough not to use the free shipping ripoff. Second, and consequently, Jill knows that she has a volume customer who may buy significant amounts from her in the future–but not if she gouges on the shipping. Once that customer trusts her to keep freight charges within reason, she will be a preferred vendor.

Joe? Fagedaboudim. Jill rocks. Joe’s running game on his customers.

Free shipping: just another shell game to make people think they got a bargain when in fact it’s a wash for one item, and a ripoff for more than one.

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If you consider Amazon an evil empire, pay slightly more

I often read very disturbing accounts of how Amazon treats its warehouse employees. I am already acquainted with the comic opera that is Amazon customer service. (Although if you write an articulate letter to Mr. Bezos, and have a valid concern, I must say that you get connected to very intelligent and diligent people who have the power to throw lightning bolts.) I am aware how difficult it is for anyone but Amazon to make money selling through Amazon. Amazon uses really nasty little pricing tactics to beat out the independent sellers who sell through it. Some say that Amazon has become worse than Walmart.

If so, it has also become more useful than Walmart. It has become a way that, without:

  • patronizing Walmart;
  • wandering a building the size of Liechtenstein;
  • watching simian children who really just need corporal punishment in liberal measure;
  • stepping over bodily wastes and those who collapsed after discharging them;
  • meeting the vacant stare of a Walbot;
  • being ‘greeted;’
  • viewing the gluteal creases, lateral mammary declines, pre-gluteal tattoos advertising coital attitudes, dorsal corpulence, evidence of recent and disappointing commode use attempts, ochre jellies, green slimes, black puddings, grey oozes, and the rest of the D&D Monster Manual,

I can:

  • Hunt up an old hockey guide from the 1970s and check now and then to see if someone sells one for a reasonable price.
  • Go shopping for cyan Samsung CLP-300 toner, ant baits, BioClean, the most recent DVD season of Boardwalk Empire, and a Sahaptin/English dictionary–and find them, and buy them.
  • Maintain a list of all the stuff I might someday buy, and on a whim, throw an item into an order. Maintain another, private list of all the stuff I regularly buy, but don’t want people to know about, and at need, reach right into there and buy this or that.
  • Read what other people think about a product, filter out reactions that are ignorant or douchey, and form an impression of whether I myself would be satisfied.
  • Browse books beyond the temporal limits of the waking day, at will.

You’ve got to admit the appeal. If it’s just books, sure, there are other booksellers. But it’s hard to find a one-stop shop that automatically carries the air filters, sports team t-shirts, new thriller, MP3 album, and blender on your shopping list. This way, you do not have to create logins at jimsfilterempire.com, licensedgreed.com, Powell’s (wait, you already have one there), Itunes (where you will let the Apple iCamel’s iNose under too many of your tents), and damemixalot.com. You do not have to take your chances with their service or lack thereof.

Would I prefer to buy all of the above at local stores, paying local merchants? Sure. And if I would like to spend seven hours on the phone speaking with underpaid people whose own best interests are served by just pretending to go check, then telling me they don’t carry what I want, or four gallons of gas and two miles of walking in futile effort to see for myself if I can find even one of them, I can do that. But local retailers generally don’t pay people enough to give a damn, cannot possibly be certain to carry the thing I need, and are often owned (at least, in Boise, which is a very entrepreneurial place) by sociopaths who just couldn’t get along with anyone else long enough to hold a job. And will pepper their establishments with political and/or religious references. Not always, just often enough to turn one off.

It ends up with going to Amazon. Knowing full well that one is helping to fund the sweatshop business model. So if that’s what’s going to happen, how to salvage any sense of social responsibility?

For me, it’s about convenience rather than price. Here’s one thing you can do. Amazon will still get paid, but it will not reward their tactics.

Suppose you’re browsing for more than books, which means you can’t just shop at Powell’s. You’re buying a USB cable, nipple cream, a book for your husband, a stuffed animal, polyhedra dice, the last version of Quicken that didn’t suck, and a Halloween costume (child size) of a Uighur insurgent. Your odds are excellent at Amazon.

In fact, it is very likely that you will have many shopping options for some products. Amazon itself will be one of them. Take a close look at the pricing. The minimum freight charge for any order is $3.99. Notice how, in so many cases, Amazon offers the item for $3.97 or so more, in the assumption that you’ll buy enough to get free shipping. Examples:

  • The lowest-priced seller for the book lists it for $5.00. Amazon lists it for $8.97, but it’s eligible for free shipping. $8.99 vs. $8.97.
  • You can get the Quicken for $45.00. Amazon has it for $48.95, so it gets free shipping without having to buy anything else. $48.99 vs. $48.95.
  • Just to get rid of it, hoping to make a little money on the freight overage, the seller lists the book for $0.01. So do five other sellers. Amazon’s price? $3.98, just buy enough other stuff for free shipping. $4.00 vs. $3.98.

You see the trend. Any time you see Amazon’s price just shy of $4 higher than one of their independent sellers, that’s what is happening. Since Amazon will combine it all into a shipment, and has significant freight negotiation leverage, their freight cost assures them a better margin than it appears. Freight out is often a profit center, the one you never really consider.

So if you want to feel better about it, just pay the other guy what will work out to be a nickel to a dollar more. That’s all you have to do. Sure, Amazon will still get its cut, but your order will not be packaged by a suffering, footsore individual whose pick quota was just increased from 75 per hour to 100. You’ll support an independent who probably also has a retail operation. You still won’t have create one more login. And you won’t be rewarding that devilish pricing tactic.