‘Free’ Shipping

My husband recently ordered a fan from Amazon Marketplace. Because the price was greater than $35, he had the option of free shipping. This was not the first time we’ve ordered something from the Amazon website or chosen the free shipping option. We’ve been noticing something weird about that.

[pullquote]How free is ‘free’ shipping[/pullquote]

First of all, there seems to be a deliberate attempt to discourage tightwads like us to use the free shipping. Estimated arrival dates are later and packages seem to take longer to arrive. They routinely take the long way around. And second, how free is that free shipping anyway? Who, ultimately, ends up paying for it?

Here’s a case in point, remember that fan? According to the initial tracking data, it was shipped from Allentown, PA to Clinton, PA. We live in Aaronsburg, PA.

Now in case you’re not familiar with the geographical features of the state, Clinton is 300 miles west of Allentown while Aaronsburg is exactly halfway in between. That was the first leg of its journey.

We figured, okay, there must be some main shipping terminal in Clinton and assumed that the fan would be sent back east to Aaronsburg the next day.

Not so.

The next day’s tracking data showed it was scanned in at Grove City, OH, 180 miles farther west. My husband discovered this little tidbit of information one evening.

The next morning he found that, sure enough, the fan had been shipped 379.7 miles back east again. But not to Aaronsburg. Instead, it once again overshot Aaronsburg and landed in Lewisberry, PA. We have friends who live close to Lewisberry and if we’d known about the box landing in their backyard, we might have timed a visit accordingly.

For the purposes of clarifying to those ignorant of Pennsylvania’s little hamlets, Lewisberry is 89 miles southeast of Aaronsburg. But where does the fan end up that day? It flies 132 miles west again and spends the night in Duncansville, PA.

The next day, wonder of wonders, it finally arrives in Aaronsburg, 71 miles east of Duncansville. But, it goes to the post office, not to our house.

Now this fan was not large but it was placed in a box that was too large to fit into a post office box because we got one of those card-thingys telling us there was a package for us. So, not for the first time, I was forced to go down the hill and schlep a heavy box back up to our house.

I need to do this on foot because of course the post office does not care that I am legally blind and don’t have a driver’s license or that my husband works longer hours than it does and can never get there during business hours.

My husband did, however, take the time to satisfy our curiosity and calculate one part of the cost of shipping that one little fan. Judging from the overall tracking data, it traveled a total of 1065 miles. Subtracting the 149 actual geographical miles between Allentown and Aaronsburg tells us that it traveled an extra 916 miles. We are assuming the box traveled in a gas-hoggin’ diesel truck back and forth across the state of Pennsylvania and that such a truck drinks fuel to the tune of 7 miles to the gallon. At the current cost of diesel fuel—$2.69 per gallon—that means the cost of fuel for those extra miles was $133.55. And that doesn’t begin to cover the wear and tear on the trucks or the wages of all the people who handled that box along its zigzaggy way.

Of course, as my husband pointed out, that one little box was probably accompanied by plenty of other boxes that shared the cost because surely our ‘free’ shipping order was not the only one to be shipped via a circuitous route. This has been an observable pattern in the past months.

We cannot explain the idiosyncrasies of Amazon’s free shipping. Nor am I making an assumption about their motive, but I will make an assumption about one thing: sooner or later, in some way or other, Amazon is gonna pass that extra cost along to its customers. Why can’t they keep it simple, charge a flat shipping rate, and send packages the most direct way possible?


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