Sunday, March 28, 2010

Should You Buy from Woot?

Woot-logos - VirtualSupply
Woot! Sells one item a day, at "discount" prices.

NOTE: Shortly after I wrote this, Woot! was sold to Amazon.  Figures.  A decade later, I have yet to buy anything on Woot!  I suppose those beacons would have been good for my golf cart, or if I decided to start a snow-plow business.  Other than that, nothing.  See also, Woot! Revisited.

* * * 
I was online recently and came across the site Woot! which is an interesting internet retail site. Every day, they offer one item for sale, and then sell that item until they are sold out. The next day, they sell something else. It is an interesting retail model, to say the least. And apparently one that is pretty profitable as well.

Are these bargains? Maybe. The problem with the Woot! site is that if you become a fan of the site, you are going there to shop, not to make a purchase.

What's the difference? If you are making a purchase of an item, you carefully determine a need for the item, then shop around to compare prices and features, select the product you want, and them make a strategic purchase.

The Woot! site, like most "shopping" venues, (malls, shopping channels, SkyMall catalog, etc.) reverse the process. They offer a product, and then you decide you need it. The step of determining real need, comparison shopping of prices and features, and strategic buying are not collapsed, they are avoided. They present a product and you impulse buy it.

They are pretty up front about this, too, in a humorous way. Their purchase button says "I Want One!" which is sort of a nod to the impulse purchase aspect of their site. Their blog portion has some more examples of their humor as well, such as their "Holy Crap Commandments":

I. Thou shalt expect nothing beyond one bag of some kind and your chosen quantity of crappy items (which should be THREE). 
II. Thou shalt not whine and complain when some people's crap turns out to be nicer than yours.
III. Thou shalt take a moment to consider whether you might be better off just not buying this crap.
IV. Thou shalt not order just one crap and blame it on anything but your own inattention. 
V. To paraphrase Stephen Stills, shalt thou not get the crap you want, want the crap you get.

I have to hand it to them, at least they are up-front about compulsive shopping. Here's our crap, you wanna buy it? Great. Stop Whining if you don't like it.

This section, from their FAQ is even more up front:

Will I receive customer support like I'm used to?
No. Well, not really. If you buy something you don't end up liking or you have what marketing people call "buyer's remorse," sell it on eBay. It's likely you'll make money doing this and save everyone a hassle. If the item doesn't work, find out what you're doing wrong. Yes, we know you think the item is bad, but it's probably your fault. Google your problem, or come back to that product discussion in our community and ask other people if they know. Try to call the manufacturer and ask if they know. If you give up and must return it to us, then follow on to the next FAQ entry.
That is pretty funny! Honesty like this is hard to come by. Most of what they sell is what people euphemistically call "consumer electronics" and what I call junk. You know, some box of junk with a wall-pack transformer, a packet of silica desiccant, and a warranty card, along with an owner's manual that opens with "Congratulations on your purchase of our piece of junk! It is sure to change your life forever!"

Or, if the item was made in China, as they increasingly are, it will be printed on that slick melamine-laced paper in an odd narrow font, and say "Conglatulations Comrade! You buy junky product! Make much happy! Happy Happy!"

But that would be racist to say that.

But that is the problem with Woot! and consumer electronics in general. The promise of these "toys" is that they will change your life forever, and for the better. You will, from that day forward, look at your life as having two parts; the dull dark period before you purchased a Roomba on Woot! and the enlightened period afterwords, when the angels sang, the heavens opened up, and you finally managed to lose that extra 10 lbs.

But after unpacking countless consumer electronics over the years, tossing the warranty cards (just an invitation for spam and junk mail anyway) and unwrapping those wire ties on yet another wall-pack transformer, I can honestly say that 99% of this junk is just utter crap I could live without. And I'm an Electrical Engineer, too.

I used to buy junk like this from a catalog called Damark. Damark had some great deals, at times, and just junk at others. On the whole, I think I broke even. I bought some phones at Damark for half the cost at the local office supply store. I bought a phone system from them as well. A lot of other stuff was not up to snuff, or was clearly returned merchandise. But the main problem was, (and is) that by getting the catalog, I would end up "shopping" for things I didn't need, based on price, rather than on actual need.

So I would look at the catalog and think, "Gee, that robotic dog looks pretty cool, and only $59.95!" But of course, it was a returned robotic dog and the reason why it was returned was that it was a total POS.

OK, so I didn't buy a robotic dog (I am not THAT stupid) but you get the idea. You read these catalogs and suddenly think you can't live without the product, particularly at the low, low price mentioned. And before long you are buying more and more of this junk, overpaying for it and cluttering up your life and maxing out your credit card.

And I am not picking on DAMARK. Yes, they have some good bargains. They also have stuff you don't need or want. If you read the catalogs, you'll end up buying both.

The best thing to do is to avoid catalogs. I throw them away when I get them now. If you pick up a catalog, chances are, you'll read it and start to think about things you want to buy. Not reading the catalogs (or going on websites like Woot! or watching home shopping channels) is the best way to limit spending on unnecessary garbage.

So while I think Woot! is an interesting concept, I don't think I'll be logging on every day to check it out. The odds that they will have, on a particular day, some item I want or need, is slim. It is far more likely I would end up impulse-purchasing something I didn't need, and end up with more junk cluttering up my life.

Note: I checked a few "bargains" on Woot! over a two-week period, and was not impressed. For example, this laptop was selling for $499.95 plus $5 shipping. Not a bad price, but the local Staples, Wal-Mart and BJ's Wholesale have the same deal without paying for shipping. Plus, the unit is "re-manufactured" meaning it was defective or someone returned it, and God only knows if it will work for you, or whether it will outlast the 90-day warranty. A laptop for $500 is the norm these days, not some screaming bargain. A re-manufactured laptop should be at least $100 cheaper.

I suspect some of the other merchandise on Woot! is about the same in "value". But since you are not comparison shopping (just plain old shopping) you are not going to notice that the $99 GPS is really only an average price, instead of the screaming bargain they claim it is. The humorous stories on the site are funny, but they obscure the nature of the underlying bargain, or lack thereof.

So no, I won't be buying anything on Woot! anytime soon.