At what point does the convenience of online shopping become a journey into absurdity? I spent much of the winter break visiting my wife’s family in Washington, and had an excellent, relaxing couple of weeks. However, one seemingly insignificant event has lingered in my mind, straddling the line between hilarious and infuriating.
Let me tell you a story.
I was given a $40 Walmart gift card for Christmas, which as someone tough to buy for, I really appreciated. Since this was in the States, I wanted to spend it right away before coming back to Canada. I perused Walmart’s website, looking for something nice for myself, and soon found a couple of books I had wanted. Perfect. The total came out to just shy of $34, and after tax I’d only have about $3 left on the gift card, which I could just spend the next time I found myself in an American Walmart.
Satisfied, I clicked on the “checkout” button. And then things got complicated.
My total came up to $43 after shipping, which would’ve been fine; I wanted the books and could pay the extra $3 to get them. But what made me pause was the fact that, below the breakdown of what I was paying, below the $6 charge for shipping, was a note reading that Walmart offered FREE shipping on orders over $35. What a deal! Albeit a strange one — I had to spend an extra dollar to save five. But I wasn’t too upset at that, because it basically meant I’d get something else as a free bonus.
But boy, did it turn out to be difficult to find that something else. As it turns out, Walmart doesn’t have a ton of items for sale in the $1–$2 range, and many of those that were were either out of stock or wouldn’t ship until well after I’d gone home to Canada (and international shipping was more expensive, of course).
In the end, after a frustrating 10 minutes or so of finding things and adding them to my cart only to find out that, after taxes, they pushed the price back up over $40 even with free shipping, I finally decided to just buy myself a snack to eat while I read my books. I found a bag of “Annie’s Homegrown Organic Cheddar Snack Mix” with some pretzels and crackers and whatever-who-cares-I-just-want-to-place-my-order. It was $1.73, and made my order total come up a few cents short of $40, nicely using up the entire gift card. Cool. I hit purchase and planned to forget about the order until it arrived.
But no. Walmart sent me a confirmation that my package had shipped the next morning… followed by a second, then a third. Because my two books and bag of chips were all shipping separately, from different states. For the books, I can understand that — they aren’t new releases, and one likely was never a hot seller and came out in 1999, so I was surprised Walmart even had it. But the chips? Did the chips have to come from a warehouse in Southern California?
In a recent interview with National Public Radio (NPR), Conservation International CEO M. Sanjayan explained that shopping online actually can be more environmentally friendly than shopping at a store (if doing so would mean driving there), but only if you’re okay with slower, consolidated deliveries. According to Sanjayan, “Trucks from online retailers may go out less than full to get you your products more quickly,” quickly eliminating the environmental benefits of online shopping. My chips arrived after six days (which included the New Year’s long weekend) via a private courier. They came in a small, unpadded plastic envelope, with the crumbs of crushed crackers rattling around in the bottom of the bag. I hadn’t actually checked the size before ordering it, but found out that it was 71 grams — the size you’d find in a vending machine.
The whole experience has opened my eyes to just how wasteful policies of free shipping after a certain threshold really are. I would’ve been happy with my $34 of books. But because of this policy, Walmart paid a worker to pull this little bag of snack food from a warehouse shelf, then package it and throw on a label. They paid a courier service to pick it and other orders like it up, transport it across the United States’ west coast over a matter of days, and a driver to deliver it right to my family’s front door. All of that expense and pollution and time for a bag of chips I didn’t even want, that it would have cost me more money to not order.
In summation, the only good that came from Walmart’s free shipping deal was that I had a snack to eat while I wrote this article. It tasted decidedly alright.