Free Shipping Isn’t Really Free

Etsy and Miceli share the same goal: to induce shoppers to buy from Etsy instead of ordering mass-produced goods from the uncountable conventional retailers that would also like to ship you a pair of feather earrings. Now she and the platform are in conflict because of how those other retailers—especially Amazon—have warped our idea of what it means to shop online. There’s scarcely tastier bait for American shoppers than free shipping, and it’s been transformed from an occasional incentive into something that closely resembles a consumer requirement. But shipping isn’t free for the people who send packages, and an insatiable demand for this perk might be the thing that breaks mom-and-pop retail for good.

Online shopping, when it works best, is sort of like a duck. The part above the water—the algorithmically selected products, the simple checkout process aided by personal information stored on phones, the package that appears on your porch two days later—glides placidly along, setting off only the gentlest of ripples in your attention. The apotheosis of e-commerce is when people spend money without feeling like anything has happened at all.

Below the surface, the little webbed feet of retail paddle furiously. Miceli alone takes a new bundle of packages to the post office nearly every day. This holiday season, the United States Postal Service will deliver a projected 800 million packages. Early in 2020, FedEx will start delivering on Sundays all year, a service previously reserved for the holidays. In New York, where daily deliveries have tripled in less than a decade, trucks snarl streets and rack up nearly a half million parking tickets annually. In 2015, Amazon launched Amazon Flex, through which the company pays people to use their own cars to ferry boxes, assuming all responsibility for mileage and expenses. (Amazon did not respond to requests for comment.)

Large retailers make sure their own ducks stay upright. Orders come in boxes marked with the insignia of the seller, not the deliverer. Narvar, a popular logistics start-up that touts its ability to help brands “deliver premium post-purchase experiences,” directs buyers to a clean, bright, retailer-marked landing page to track packages. If you don’t look closely, you might think Warby Parker itself is bringing you your new glasses, not UPS.

Masking the nitty-gritty of shipping, namely the costs, is the most potent tool online stores have to persuade people to click “Place order” and come back for more. In a 2018 survey by Internet Retailer, shipping charges were cited as the most common reason shoppers abandon their carts, topping the pet-peeve list for nearly a third of respondents, ahead of things like not wanting to create an account and being unsure of the store’s return policy. Many resent paying for shipping so much that they’ll buy more expensive items or throw in additional small stuff—a single-use skin-care mask, socks—just to clear a free-delivery purchase minimum, says Ron Berman, a marketing professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. At Etsy’s suggestion, Miceli started using a similar gambit, absorbing the cost for orders over $35 in the hope that people buying her least expensive products would buy more of them.


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