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THE COOLEST STUFF IN THE UNIVERSE | Online Shopper

Online Retailers Can Deliver the Goods--For a Price

November 30, 2000|JENNIFER LOWE | jennifer.lowe@latimes.com

With each click, a Web page brings ideas for the holidays. A cashmere sweater! A CD player! The latest bestseller! Before you know it, your list is finished.

But those cheery feelings of satisfied shopping vanish when you click on a Web site's "check out": Say hello to shipping charges.

Like mail-order companies before them, online retailers can surprise you with seemingly big shipping and handling charges. Sure, it's not unreasonable to expect to pay for delivery; after all, convenience costs.

Consumer experts, however, have long said that the fees can serve as profit centers for mail-order houses and e-tailers. Handling, which usually means someone pulled something off a shelf and packed it for you, seems superfluous. Doesn't someone in a bricks-and-mortar store pull the same item off the truck and set it on a shelf?

Shipping and handling charges vary widely from company to company, product to product, even within a company. Order from the Macy's by Mail catalog, for instance, and you'll pay higher shipping charges for the same item than on Macys.com. Macys.com even pays shipping charges when you send something back.

How unreasonable are shipping charges?

I ordered three Christmas gifts online, from CDnow.com, Macys.com and Potterybarn.com. Then, with the items still in their original packaging, I sent them back. All three items cost me less to return than the companies' basic shipping fees. (I upgraded shipping on two items to speed delivery.) In one case--Potterybarn.com--the difference was more than $6.

But the mail-off experience was eye-opening; shipping isn't cheap. UPS, which I'd always thought of as a bargain, was costlier in every case than good old U.S. mail, although you are able to track packages with UPS and not the postal service.

As the holidays draw closer, watch for free shipping deals. They can save you 10% or more in some cases. One place to check for free offers is Yahoo's shopping department; go to http://shopping.yahoo.com and look under "sales." And some sites, such as Outpost.com and Shoebuy.com, make a big deal of free delivery.

So in considering the cost of your purchase, factor in the shipping charges and possible return charges since it's rare that a "dot-com" will fully pay return costs, except for exchanges.

A number of e-tailers will include a prepaid return label, but the cost of the return shipping will be added to your credit card bill.

When you get to a site, look for shipping charges first--before you shop. If you can't find them easily, call customer service or click onto a new site.

Here's what happened with my three gifts, and what it cost to send them back through Mail Boxes Etc. in Montrose.

CDnow.com: It took me a few clicks on this busy site before I found the shipping charges, which I reached through an item on the home page about free shipping upgrades (for orders of more than $50). The site says it won't figure shipping charges until you create an account and items are in your basket because it ships worldwide and rates are different.

Shipping costs: $2.99 for the first item, 99 cents per additional item for delivery via regular mail or Priority Mail. Both options can take up to two weeks for delivery. I bought the new U2 CD for $13.28 on Wednesday, upgraded to "rapid shipping" for $6.30, and my package arrived by FedEx on Monday.

My return shipping options: U.S. mail costs $2.15 and arrives in two days. UPS cost $7.83 and also takes two days. U.S. mail wins this round.

Macys.com: I got to the shipping charges through the "frequently asked questions" section on the site's customer service Web page. I ordered a men's V-neck cashmere sweater for $109.

Shipping costs: Prices are fixed--$6, $14 or $18, depending on how fast you want your order. At checkout, the site offered me ground shipping for $6. But the policies said, "Most orders are processed up to seven days after they are placed." Seven days? Just to get it packed? I upgraded to second-day air for $14. I ordered Wednesday and the sweater arrived via UPS second-day air the following Tuesday.

My return shipping options: U.S. mail costs $4.50 and takes a week to arrive. UPS costs $8.51 and also takes a week. The postal service wins again.

Potterybarn.com: It was easy to find shipping and return policies on the company's customer service Web page. I ordered a set of nine cotton reindeer dinner napkins for $54.

Shipping costs: Prices start at $6 and go up to $26 based on the cost of the order. For orders costing more than $495, the company charges a 6% shipping fee. Most orders are delivered by FedEx within five days--the same as the mail-order catalog. Add $15 for delivery in two business days via FedEx Rush. I ordered Wednesday and paid $11. My package arrived Monday.

My return shipping options: U.S. mail costs $4.80 and arrives in about five days. UPS costs $9.16 and arrives in about a week. Uncle Sam wins again.

Jennifer Lowe is deputy food editor of The Times.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

THE SKINNY

Shopping for: Gifts

Sites shopped: CDnow.com, Macys.com, Potterybarn.com

The good: Some sites offer free delivery when you spend a certain amount. Be sure to shop around.

The bad: Most sites tax shipping and handling charges.

Bottom line: Check shipping charges and return policies before you fill your shopping cart.

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