Don’t buy heavy things on the internet

by Michael Alderete on 10/13/2004

This is a lesson we all learned from Pets.com, right? There is no conceivable business model where you can make a profit selling 30 pound bags of pet food online. Either you pass the shipping costs on to your customers — in which case even the corner store is cheaper — or you cover them yourself, and lose money on every sale. In the first scenario you don’t make any money. In the second, you lose a lot of it.

So, if selling heavy things online is a bad idea, how about buying things online?

I just bought a set of speakers off of eBay, at 1/4 of the best retail price. However, the shipping costs for the 30 pound speakers was $30, nearly doubling the price of the item. Still, I’m ahead, right?

That was until the speakers were broken. There was a buzzing noise coming from the right speaker, which even my poor ears heard right away. Probably some electronic component got bounced too many times, and is introducing noise into the system. Intolerable. The speakers are unusable.

So, what to do? The returns process from the seller is almost reasonable: get an RMA number, ship them back to them, and they will refund the purchase price and original shipping amount.

The problem is, it just cost me $30 to ship the speakers back (to say nothing of the time I’ve spent getting authorization, packing the system back up, and taking it to UPS). Assuming I get the entire $68 credited back to me — by no means an automatic, these guys make it nearly impossible to follow all their RMA rules — the whole adventure will have cost me $30, plus a day of my time (which is worth quite a bit more, if I’d been doing billable work instead).

Here’s the key to buying heavy things online: only buy things where the cost savings on the item is quite a bit more than the shipping cost, and where the item is durable enough to be certain to arrive in usable condition. You should be OK with the item getting a bit banged up, but the bangs shouldn’t reduce the utility of the item.

You’re only screwed if the item is damaged when it arrives. But when that happens, you end up wishing you just gone down to Best Buy and paid retail.

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