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Mail order returns

By Ken Root

The golden era of rural America included shopping from a catalog from Montgomery Ward or Sears Roebuck and Company. It was a way for deprived people to dream and for frugal people to find the quality item they needed at a good price. The daily visit by the local mail carrier had an element of excitement when he showed up with a package that could be unwrapped and admired before its contents were put to work in the kitchen or on the farm. Today, there is a rebirth of that ordering spirit that has fallen in the lap of those who live in the thinly populated plains, “hollers” and mountains. The likely outcome won’t be all good but it will show the advancement of technology, the savvy of business and the nature of our species.

Mail order today is on the Internet. Even if you shun that confounded contrivance or you fear identity theft and draining of your bank account, you know that people are buying lots of stuff from Amazon.com, and the UPS trucks are zooming along the roads to deliver it.

It is amazingly easy to look at everything known to man, then make “one click” and it is on its way to you. The “Monkey Wards” catalogue was never like this! That means you can comparison shop, find the lowest price, and get most items delivered with free shipping and no tax.

Let me expand on the ramifications of my enthusiasm for Internet shopping versus traditional means. I am a normal male so I wanted a bigger TV set. I was restricted only by my imagination, the size of the room and my fear that Obamacare will bankrupt me, so I have to keep some money in reserve. I went to the local appliance store and selected a reputable brand of flat-screen TV of ample size. I asked the price, which was $1,100. I thanked them and went home where I opened up my computer and found the exact same TV for less money. I had to think about such a purchase for a few days as I watched the price go down. On Black Friday, which has really become Black November, I bought it for $798 delivered to my home, free shipping and no tax. From the time it was in the door, it took 10 minutes to assemble and put on the table. Although the TV is “smart” and I am not, I was able to turn it on and see a beautiful movie screen from the comfort of my couch. The only modification was that I had to change my seating orientation because my feet were blocking a portion of the picture.

I called the retailer and told him what I had done. He was not surprised and pleasantly thanked me for coming to his store. I felt bad but the $300 savings cured the guilt pang in just a few minutes. I had literally no feeling of guilt for not paying tax on it. I do realize that our infrastructure is based on the money we contribute to its upkeep and cutting sales taxes hits the local community hardest. Long term, this issue has to be addressed but I’d like to see a study that shows whether there is more economic activity because of lower prices and if that is just siphoned away or comes back to the community in some tangible form.

Finally, there is the shipping. Most of what I buy comes from Amazon.com and the shipping is really not free. I pay an annual fee that includes electronic books, movies and shipping of anything that is listed as Amazon Prime. To counter this, almost every other online retailer has sales where a perk is free shipping, so the marketplace competition may be tough for them but it is good for me. FedEx and UPS battle for the cream of the overnight and two-day shipping crop, but the U.S. Postal Service also delivers through this process and appears to be a growing choice for free shipping to places where the other carriers don’t find it profitable to travel. That could be good for keeping the USPS in business so I hope they cut a good deal and don’t give their service away.

Amazon appears to be really reaching in their business model for remote delivery. A few months ago, they came out with the concept of using unmanned drones to deliver packages. It may be a publicity stunt or a means to confound their competitors, but imagine a big barcode painted on a concrete slab over by the south grain bin. You go online and order an item and a few hours later there is a text message that it is being shipped. Shortly thereafter a strange multi-rotor helicopter with a box under it comes swooping down on the barcode and leaves the package. What a service, especially if it is tax free with no shipping charges!

This may be a short-term phenomenon as it appears to be too good to be true, like the satellite dishes of the 1970s and early 1980s. We have to agree that times have changed but business has not. Imagination, creativity and logistics were what made catalogue shopping so popular a century ago and the same is in play in the Internet age. We used to have repurposing of boxes, and even the rough pages of the catalogues, which were found in outhouses for greater use than just whiling away the time. Today, we are asked to recycle the flimsy materials but it is still composting just in a different way.

It is likely that the pervasiveness of Internet shopping will result in regulations that reduce its attractiveness, but it may show that we can live wherever we wish with similar access to goods. This may decentralize the population and actually reduce our carbon footprint due to less travel. Rural America has always been attractive for what it doesn’t have: crime, pollution and crowding. It may now counter some of the criticism of what it hasn’t had to date: equal competitive access to the marketplace.

Editor’s note: Ken Root has been an agricultural reporter for 39 years. Root now does daily radio and television programming and is a columnist. He can be reached at kenroot@gmail.com, or send mail for him to High Plains Journal.

Date: 1/27/2014

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