Wednesday, December 14, 2011

When is "Free" really Free?

"A fool and his money are soon parted"
- Thomas Tusser, 1524-80
Shoppers love the word "free" and so stores exploit that craving with many creative uses of free. For example,

"We'll send you this CD free plus shipping and handling (S&H)". Then when you discover that S&H is $10, it's not so cheap anymore. I recently encountered an odd variation of this. I was shopping for a used book on Half.com and found several copies selling for just one penny (plus S&H). The shipping fee was $5, not pennies, but I had little reason to complain. I was going to get a book I wanted for just $5.01. Perhaps the book was not selling and sellers were just trying to clear space for better inventory? And upon receiving the book I found it filled with yellow underlining and dog eared pages. Not quite the "very good" condition I expected. So I did get what I paid for.

"Buy two, get one free!",  "Half off! (with purchase of similar item)" Sales like this give me glad I studied mathematics. The first sale is 33% off but must buy 3 items.  The second 25% off with purchase of two items. I've seen as high as buy 10 for $X. The problem with sales like this is that you might not want 10 or 3 or even 2 items. Just one. Buying food that will just spoil if unused is no bargain at all. But if the item has a long shelf-life like printer ink or shoes or canned goods, then it might make sense to stock up.

"Free shipping!"  An article at Savings.com points out the possible flaws of free shipping.
1. Free shipping is not always better. Often the item prices are higher to cover the cost of the "free" shipping. Compare the item price plus S&H to find the best deal.
2. Free shipping may not be your best choice. Some vendors block coupon code discounts if free shipping is selected. Check to see which gives you a better deal; 25% off will likely save more money than free shipping.
3. Expect Delays. Free shipping is low priority for the vendor and typically sent by slowest method.
4. Stores vary widely in the shipping fees they charge. Check out a list of fees at Savings.com Top 50 Retailers.
5. Consider "Ship to Store". It may be cheaper (or even free) to have an item shipped to the store nearest your where you can pick it up personally.

Bottom Line

Stay smart when shopping and look at the total cost before buying.

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