January 10, 2013
During the season of gift-buying, we tried to balance our online and catalog shopping with local purchases. We believe in keeping local stores alive, and that only happens if we do our buying there whenever possible.
But there's a natural shift going on. Local stores can't afford to keep low-demand items in their inventory. These naturally become the province of online retailers, who can maintain enough inventory in a single warehouse to satisfy the demand of the entire nation.
If only 300 people want to buy a thing, that probably means that I'm the only person in Greensboro who wants it. Just how many stores should order that item and keep it in inventory, just for me? The answer is: zero.
However, when I'm buying a high-demand item, why buy it online when I can pick it up in local stores?
Also, there's the browsing factor. Some local stores carry rare or one-of-a-kind merchandise that nobody knows they want until they see it on display.
I'm not going to go online to discover a cool gadget or toy or bit of art or household item that we don't know we want. I'm going to find such things by walking around treasure stores like The Extra Ingredient, Caryl's Christmas Shop, Fleet-Plummer, Irving Park Art & Frame, Toys & Co., Mori Luggage & Gifts and Loco for Coco. (I really missed Smith Fine Living this Christmas.)
But there are things they don't carry, and that I can't find at the big chain stores, either. So I do a lot of shopping online.
Which brings us to shipping.
We're grateful that UPS Stores exist. Back when they were still Mailboxes Etc., they acquired a great deal of expertise in packaging things for shipping so they arrive unbroken and in good condition.
We try to bring them things in big plastic bags so that styrofoam peanuts don't end up clinging to all the items – sending someone a box of packaging peanuts is only one step above sending someone an envelope full of glitter. It does not brighten their day.
The UPS Store folks find the right box; I have never had anything they packed for me arrive broken, and the only time anything arrived late was when there was a snowstorm in the area where the package was being delivered.
I wish I could say the same of FedEx-Kinko's. But the Kinko's people were all trained in printing and copying; packaging was a sudden sideline and even after all these years, everywhere we go in America we find that we have to watch carefully and give minute instructions to the FedEx employee in order to get items packaged in a manner that is up to UPS Store minimum standards.
Ditto with packaging done at office supply stores. They have all the materials; they just don't know what they're doing. The only time I use any service but the UPS Store is when I have to ship something after hours (FedEx-Kinko's keeps more convenient hours in most places) or when there's no other choice. And then I usually end up taking the materials and doing the packaging myself.
But what about when I'm ordering something to be delivered to me – or to someone else as a gift?
Amazon.com is usually very good about shipping things to arrive intact. Books would seem to be an easy packaging job, but this is not so. Books, art and other printed matter don't need padding, they need stiffening and edge protection.
Amazon ships books and other paper goods in cardboard that extends well beyond the edges of the items; they also use big air bubble bags inside to keep the items stationary. This works perfectly, most of the time.
But sometimes Amazon's business partners aren't so careful. I remember buying two jars of Country Life Mood fish oil supplement pills from a company that, on Amazon, offered to send two bottles at once.
I assumed this meant that they knew how to ship two bottles together. They did not. They put the two bottles in the same box, but put no padding between them.
The result is that with the normal shocks and impacts of shipping, the two bottles crashed into each other repeatedly, with no more padding than the thin cardboard of their retail packaging.
I don't know about you, but once there are tiny shards of glass all around, I don't feel confident of my ability to rinse off all of them thoroughly enough to safely swallow the pills.
Since Earth Fare stopped carrying the brand I like, I still buy them online – but I buy only one bottle at a time. Since that decision, no mishaps.
This Christmas season, we learned a lot about defective packaging.
Most stores that do a lot of mail order work are splendid about packaging. Some are shockingly incompetent – but inquiry usually tells us that the person who packaged our item for destruction-in-transit was "a new employee."
Personally, I think it's insane to assign a "new employee" to package up expensive items for shipment without close supervision and intense training. For instance, Pavo Real Gallery in Boca Raton lives on its ability to ship ceramics; yet we received one set of items that was so badly packaged I had to wonder if the employee had deliberately sabotaged it.
The company made us whole, but I couldn't help but wonder how they stayed in business with slipups like that.
Sometimes it's not really the retailer's fault. We ordered a highly discounted but very charming nativity set from a company that I will not name, because the problem was not their fault.
This nativity was designed so that all the ceramic figures nested cleverly inside the arched openings of ceramic buildings styled to look like houses in Bethlehem.
But the manufacturer's original packaging shipped these items nested – with no padding at all between the ceramic pieces.
My wife and I unwittingly both ordered the item. Hers arrived intact, but we now regard that as a miracle. Mine arrived, identically packaged, but with the figures and the buildings torn apart inside.
The replacement set that the company sent was also self-shattered – but different pieces had survived. Enough that we could assemble three intact buildings and their contents; the fourth was a total loss in both sets.
We gave the miraculous full set to a friend who collects nativities, and kept the three-quarter set for ourselves. Meanwhile, though, we wondered how the manufacturer stayed in business, with packaging that resulted in a 67 percent self-destruction rate in transit.
Buying art online is always a bit perilous – the more valuable the item, the less you want to run the risks of packaging errors.
Some companies, however, strive for – and achieve – perfection. For instance, I bought my wife the complete Patience Brewster 12-days-of-Christmas ornament set. Each ornament accompanied the appropriate gift I gave her in our traditional 12-gift run-up to Christmas.
If you aren't familiar with Patience Brewster ceramics, they combine whimsy and humor with dashing style and superb workmanship. There are lots and lots of thin, delicate parts, all of them highly breakable.
Their packaging clearly showed that someone had thought about every possible means of breakage – and acted to prevent it....continued on page 2