Monday, May 7, 2012

Shopping at Wal-Mart can be unpleasant, depending on the store.   However, shopping Wal-Mart online can be painless and easy.

I recently made some purchases from Wal-Mart, without ever going there.   The M Roadster needs an oil change, as it has been nearly two years and close to 9,000 miles.  That might sound like a lot for your Geo Metro, but bear in mind it holds a whopping eight quarts of synthetic oil.

I went online to the BMW site to see what oils are compatible for the S52 engine.  They promote BMW motor oil ($12 a quart, no thanks) or Castrol Synthetic (same thing, $10 a quart) but also mention that Mobil 1 and Valvoline Syntec are recommended.

A quick search online reveals the best price for Valvoline 5W30 is at Wal-Mart online, for $29 for five quarts.  Shipping was 84 cents for each 5-quart package.   I ordered five, as both cars take this oil, and both will need changes.

The packages arrived two days later by Fed-Ex, and at $4.20 for shipping, it was cheaper than the gallon and-a-half of gas I would have used to drive to Wal-Mart and back.   Online shopping rocks.

Today, I realized that I was out of vitamins, so I went online to shop for them.   I presumed Amazon would have the best prices.  I presumed wrong - Wal-Mart to the rescue again, this time with free shipping for orders over $45.  I ordered a year's supply.

Shopping online has many advantages over traditional shopping:
1.  You can compare price and quality easily, by visiting a number of different sites.   Thus, you can optimize your price/value very easily.   At a store, you see a product and a price, and it is "take it or leave it."

2.  You can get what you want.   For example, when you go to the tire store, they sell you what they have in the back room, and tell you it is the best tire for your car.   You cannot easily compare prices, treadwear ratings, an reviews, without driving all over town.   Online, you can do this with a click of the mouse, and get the tires you want, not what they happen to have in stock.

3.  It avoids "shopping".   When you go to a store, you see colorful displays of discounted items (or at least they appear to be discounted).   So you go in for a quart of motor oil and come out with a $500 patio set, which was a "bargain" as it was "on sale".

4.  Saves on gas, car wear:   The nearest stores to me are at least 10 miles each way - which amounts to a gallon of gas, at least, to go there and come back.   And as I illustrated in my cost of owning a car article, there is more to owning a car than just the gasoline costs - the cost of brakes, tires, and oil, as well as wear-based repairs, can nearly equal the gasoline cost, depending on the car.

To be sure, there are some bad bargains online.   For some reason, Amazon has grocery items offered at many times the retail price, which are advertised as "50% off list!" or more.  Presumably, the people listing these items (which you can do, just like eBay) are pumping up the list price to make the product seem like a bargain, and then hoping people buy, using the oldest trick in the book - comparing the sale price to a mythical "suggested retail price" which in this case is made-up.

But such rip-offs are not hard to avoid - you just cross-shop outside of Amazon, as I did, and found Wal-Mart, in this instance, to be cheaper.  Being "loyal" to one online retailer makes little or no sense - go where you get the best prices and service.

And I suppose there are some shady sites out there that will take your money and never deliver a product.   Heck, that can happen on eBay (and does, but not often).   But then again, would you shop at a shady brick-and-mortar store?   No, of course not.   Which is why, when I was in Chinatown, and various "runners" offered to take me into a dark alley to show me fake Rolex Watches, I politely said "No."

I had been meaning to buy vitamins for a month or more, but every time I went to the store, I would forget.   And this illustrates another advantage of shopping online - you can shop whenever you want to, not just when the stores are open.   So you can shop at 2 in the morning if you want to, or 5 o'clock at night - it is all the same to a computer.   No need to worry about stores being closed for holidays, or whatever.

And you don't have to worry about items being "out of stock" - generally.   Most online sites have their inventory control linked to the ordering system, so they can tell, down to the last bottle, how many vitamins they have.  And if they are out of stock, you can order elsewhere.   Driving to the store, spending $5 on gas, and then finding out they are "out of stock" is frustrating - and a waste of time.

For the store, the advantages are many.   While shoplifting is rampant at the Brunswick Wal-Mart, it is non-existent on their online store - so costs are less.  Since the checkout process is automated, you don't have to pay Lurleen to text on her phone while she rings you up.   Less shrinkage, less damage (no "display" items necessary), less overhead, less labor - no wonder they an offer free shipping!

Brick and Mortar stores will not go away, of course.   Too many people like to roam the aisles and "shop" for things - it satisfies the hunter-gatherer need in people, particularly women, it seems (I was in the Dollar Store the other day, and it hit me that many folks go there to "pretend shop" - they wander the aisles and buy a few random dollar items.   It satisfies their shopping fix, but on a budget.  Sort of like the penny slots for poor gamblers).   Thus, "shopping" is wildly profitable for stores, and they will continue to operate to satisfy that need.

But for other things - commodity items like electronics - the days of the big-box store may be numbered.  First, Circuit City, then Best Buy.    And no one will grieve their departure, as they were obnoxious places to shop - a horrible "experience" that no one looked forward to.

But other items will continue to be sold at stores, simply because of the nature of the item.   For most people, buying fresh vegetables and fruits is a personal experience, and trusting others, such as Peapod to do this, is problematic.  The market will continue to exist - for the market.   But for commodity items, online shopping is often the way to go.

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By the way, while the Good Sam Club has really taken over Camping World - and is apparently trying to take over the RV business - their Camping World website is another example of a well-ordered and easy-to use website, with fast shipping.  I ordered more Gel-Gloss, which is the best car wash soap in the world, and it arrived in two days.   One good thing about the Good Sam takeover, is that you don't need to join the "President's Club" to get the discounts there - so long as you are a Good Sam member.   And since I was a charter life member, well, I never have to pay, anymore.