Wednesday, July 3, 2019

Amazon v. Walmart v. eBay

In the battle for online sales, who is winning?    Depends on what you are looking for.

I recently made a few purchases online.  My $25 leaf blower died after three years.  First the switch went bad.  I "fixed" this by simply wrapping a piece of wire across the switch leads, so that it turned on the moment you plugged it in.   But a short while later, sparks started flying out of the top of the thing.  I took it apart again, and the brushes were arc'ing for some reason, and the commutator was scored.   I searched online and a number of possible causes were listed, from brush misalignment to brush wear to a short in the windings.   Perhaps a piece of dirt or gravel was sucked into it.  I cleaned the commutator and adjusted the brush springs, but no avail - it turned into "old sparky" like Mark's Dad's old electric drill (which I sill have, oddly).   I am wondering whether leaving it in the hot, humid storage shed all year long might be hard on the carbon brushes.

For $25, "it ain't worth fixin'" so in the trash it goes.   A reader writes that he likes fixing old things, and mentions some videos on YouTube where people fix up old tools.   It is like Marty's Matchbox Makeovers that I like to watch, where he fixes up old Matchbox cars, some of which have been left in the sandbox for years and stepped-on to boot.   The tool repair guy repairs old tools - things that have parts that can be disassembled and put back together.  An old blowtorch from the 1950's can be disassembled, the dents beaten out, polished, and re-assembled like new.   A propane torch from the 1990's you simply throw in the trash when it is clogged and dented.

In order to effectively repair things, you need a supply of inexpensive repair parts, and the cost of repairs shouldn't exceed the overall value of the item in question.   Thus, for example, I threw away my lawn mower after about six years of use.   It dropped a valve and the rocker arm was bent.   I actually found a new rocker arm online for about $10 and pulled the valve cover and unstuck the exhaust valve and replaced the bent and broken rocker arm.   It ran - sort of.  It sounded like a bucket of bolts and was losing power.  Clearly, it needed a valve job, which would involve removing the head, having the valve seats reground, installing a new valve (and maybe valve spring) and adjusting the valve lash, re-assembling the head with a new head gasket, etc. and then testing and adjusting.

For a $250 lawnmower, it simply wasn't worth it - even with a Honda engine.   The parts cost alone would have run me close to half the cost of the mower.  If I took it to the local repair guy, he would have charged me nearly what a new one cost to repair it - maybe more.   I ran it for a while with the burned valve and then one day the pull-string broke, and I realized that the thing was near its end game.  I put it at the end of the driveway and some nice man stopped by and asked if he could take it.   I only hope he wasn't a hoarder.  My friend's hoarder Dad had dozens of such mowers covering his front lawn when he died, which made it impossible to mow the lawn.  They were "worth something" and he was going to "get around to fixing them" even though he had no idea how to fix a lawn mower.

I went to Lowe's and bought the same exact lawn mower for $250.   The only thing they changed was the paint scheme, which was reversed.   I was there today, and they still sell it, now for $269, with the "Craftsman" name on it (which no doubt cost them $19 in licensing fees).   While the first one didn't last all that long, it always started on the first pull, with little effort.

It may seem "wasteful" to throw away things rather than repair them, but the reality of life and technology today is that labor cost is so high (Still sure you want $15 minimum wage?  Remember that you pay that as well as receive it!) that the cost of repairing something can often exceed the resale value - at that point it is time to pack it in.   While fixing an old blowtorch as a hobby might be fun (and make a calming YouTube video) it probably is not a cost-effective venture, if your labor costs were factored in.   You can nurse things along, as I did with the lawn mower, and get a few more months or years of use out of them.   But usually these breakdowns are a sign of things to come.   Be prepared for the inevitable, everything has a design life.  And more modern equipment really isn't designed to be serviced in a cost-effective manner.

Anyway, I knew the leaf blower was toast, so I thought I would order a new one.   And I thought this time, I would go with a rechargeable version.   I searched online on eBay, Amazon, and Walmart.   eBay is the place to go for off-brands at low prices - things shipped directly from China by "China Post" in odd-shaped packages.   The prices are usually lower, but often you have to take a risk on a no-name seller.  And sometimes, people put things up for sale on eBay at higher prices than even Amazon and hope someone will buy it.

Also, sometimes people are deceptive.   I was about to click on a "too good to be true" price on a battery powered leaf blower when I realized, in the fine print, it said "tool only" even though the pictures showed the battery and battery charger.    It turns out these are liquidators, no doubt liquidating a Sears store, and these display models have neither battery or battery charger with them.  Since the battery and charger, bought separately, can cost more than the whole deal, it isn't worthwhile, unless you already have the same type of battery.    I thought this was a bit deceptive and several people "reviewed" the product and mentioned their disappointment at lack of battery as well as lack of original packaging and instructions.

But that got me to thinking - my neighbor gave me a battery-powered hedge trimmer, as he was moving into a Senior Apartment and wouldn't be mowing any lawns anymore.   It was a Black+Decker model and came with two battery packs and two chargers (one being the larger heavy-duty battery) and I rarely use it but once a year.   Why not get another B+D unit that uses the same battery?

I kicked myself for not thinking of this sooner.  I had just bought an 18-volt cordless electric drill at Harbor Freight for the astounding low price of $16.   The problem with these cheap electric drills is that they burn out and when they do, they aren't worth fixing, and the batteries cannot be used for anything else, as they are made only for that drill, and even the off-brand manufacturer has changed the design by then.   A B+D drill using the same battery packs I already owned would have been over $25 - but the convenience of having backup battery packs (all of the same design) would have been worth the modest extra cost.

Anyway, I found a B+D "package" of leaf blower and weed wacker, using the same battery packs.  I checked the B+D website to check the model numbers of the batteries I had, just to make sure they would fit.   They did.  I was confused a bit as to why B+D had two model numbers for this package, until I realized that one came with a single battery and the other came with two batteries.  Again, deception by omission on the part of some eBay sellers - they didn't mention explicitly how many batteries it came with, caveat emptor.

So, now I had the correct model number and product I wanted to buy, and I could correctly cross-shop across all three e-commerce platforms (at no time did I think to visit a local brick-and-mortar store - why bother?).     Just like shopping for cars (or anything else) decide on the product first and then cross-shop.   Trying to cross-shop a Toyota with a Chevy is stupid, as while one might have a better price than the other, they are not the same product, in terms of features, quality, and durability.  Pick which one you want, and then shop on that make and model.

By the way, the products seem to work well.  The battery-powered leaf blower is perfect for blowing lawn clippings and leaves off the sidewalk, less so for off the lawn.  But that's all I want it for - that and blowing dust out of the garage and off the golf cart.   Consumer-grade products work great for consumers.   A professional-style backpack gasoline powered leaf-blower would have been noisy as hell, blown over my birdbath, would have cost hundreds of dollars, and would have died an early death due to lack of use.   Leave professional grade products to the professionals.  I'm not running a lawn service, thank you.

And the reduced power of a battery-powered appliance is more than compensated for by the lack of need for long extension cords and the constant need to marshal these and plug them in as you move along.   It is like the battery powered vacuum cleaner we bought.  There are more powerful models to be had - we have them - but we use this one more as it can be pulled out and turned on in a matter of seconds.  I have seen the future, and it is cordless - and wireless.

When we bought the pickup truck (all three times) we looked at different models and makes, then settled on one, and then looked at more than 20 of that make and model online before settling on a particular one and a particular price.   Shopping Chevies versus Fords versus Toyotas means only that you end up making a random selection, usually after being pressured by a salesman at the "last place you visit."   Believe it or not, some people still shop this way.   The Ford we negotiated online and by text - not in person in the showroom.   It was a lot less stress and hassle.

But getting back to the purchase, all three e-commerce sites had about the same prices.  eBay was, oddly enough, the highest, followed by Amazon and then Walmart - always the low price, always.   I haven't bought a lot of stuff on the Walmart site, so I thought "why not?" and clicked on it.   Maybe the shipping wasn't quite as fast as Amazon, but it was nearly $10 cheaper - the big savings being in the replacement weedwacker spools (Amazon wanted a pile for those!).   Nevertheless, it was supposed to arrive on July 2nd, but came a day early.

The spools shipped first - the next day in fact - and a hold appeared on my credit card for $87.50 (these are cheap power tools - consumer grade).   I received the replacement spools the next day, but still no charge to my credit card - just a hold.  I logged onto the WalMart site and all it said was "order processing" and "order shipped" with no other status.   This struck me as odd, but I decided to wait it out.

A few days later, the hold on my credit card disappeared entirely for a whole day.   Then, on Sunday night, the hold reappears, and the next day, I get a notification of order shipped, the charge goes through, and the product arrives the same day.

So, everything worked out, but from an online perspective, it wasn't quite up to Amazon levels of IT, not even eBay.   Usually when you buy things from either Amazon or eBay, you get all these messages that your order is received, your order is being prepared, we are thinking about your order, Jeff Bezos himself is in the warehouse packing it, and so on and so forth.  When you go online to the website, it provides all this information, plus tracking data, in real-time.   This gives you confidence in the system.  Walmart delivered the goods, but left me wondering whether the order was going to go through, particularly when the hold disappeared from my credit card.   Perhaps a trivial thing, but it illustrates how Amazon - and even eBay - understand this trust thing.   You send reminders and updates and it generates confidence - and reduces the number of "where's my order?" inquires.

And yes, I suspect half the "updates" you get from Amazon are fake - they really have no new data to report, but are assuaging your fears and anxieties that your order was somehow lost in the system.   Jeff Bezos is up nights thinking about you!   That is the message they send.

Anyway, a few days later, I get an e-mail from Wal-Mart asking me to take a "survey" about the service.  Now, I am no dummy.  Both Amazon and eBay use these "survey" requests to get you to revisit the site and hopefully buy more crap.  So you go online, take the survey, and then they say, "Gee, wouldn't you like to buy THIS???" and show you pictures of stuff you might want to buy.   It is effective marketing.

But Walmart has fouled this up.  I get this e-mail that goes like this:
Thanks for shopping at!
We hope you had no trouble finding exactly what you were looking for. We're committed to making your shopping experience as pleasant and easy as possible.
In fact, we depend on feedback from customers like you to make our website as helpful and informative as possible. Tell us what you think – and how we could better serve you – by filling out a brief survey.
We assure you that the information you provide will be used for market research purposes only. Your responses are completely anonymous. Simply click on the link below:
Survey Link
We really appreciate your business and hope you visit our site again soon.
Your friends at

OK, that's fine.  It is a marketing "survey" designed to get me to go back to their website.  Good for them.  But when I click on the "Survey Link" they provide, I get this message:

The URL above does not include the proper information to be included in this survey. Please review your invite email for the proper URL, and contact the individual specified if problems persist. 
ERROR: SE-03 Variable 'Sales_order_num' required for list='0'</
Clearly, someone is asleep at the switch at Walmart these days.   In today's paper, an article about how Walmart's online presence is hemorrhaging a billion dollars a year and based on my experience, it isn't hard to see why.  It seems they are floundering a lot with half-baked ideas like "ship to store" where you can go and sit down in an orange chair and someone brings you your items.   At our local Walmart (the big one, not the ghetto gourmet) the folks sitting in that row of orange chairs are waiting for the Senior bus to pick them up - I have yet to see anyone there getting product.

They added an orange "pickup" area, where you can go and wait in your car, and someone brings you your groceries or whatever that you ordered online.  Again, I see no one there other than boyfriends waiting to pick up their girlfriend when she gets off shift, or husbands waiting for their wives to finish shopping.   No one is running out in a Walmart uniform with boxes of goods.

I tried, a few years ago, to have a spare tire for a friend's camper "shipped to store" and it was a small nightmare.  They claimed the tire wasn't at the store, but I found it in a shopping cart, jammed behind the counter in the layaway area.   I am not sure that Walmart can piggyback off its brick-and-mortar infrastructure as many claim.  Ask yourself this, would you trust any of the people "working" at your local Walmart to handle your online order?   I didn't think so.  Which is why when I bought tires for my truck, I had them shipped to home (from Amazon) rather than shipped to the store (from Walmart) as the price was the same back then (Walmart has since offered shipping discounts to store, in some instances).

Say what you like about Jeff Bezos, he runs a tight ship.

Amazon warehouse workers are inspired by Jeff Bezos' leadership.

Regardless of whether you think you are entitled to a "fair wage" and lenient working conditions, let's face it, when it comes to services and goods we are paying for ourselves, we want to do business with the company that beats its employees if they screw up - and preferably crucifies one or two a year as an example to others.  So whenever I read about the harsh working conditions at Amazon, I have to chuckle, because the same people protesting that are the same ones who bitch and moan the loudest when Amazon screws up their order.

Maybe Walmart has gotten too soft, perhaps.  Maybe trying to buy their way into online commerce isn't working.  It is one of those things you have to build from the ground up.  You can't simply buy someone else's online e-commerce platform and assume it will plug into your existing business infrastructure - particularly when it competes with it.

And maybe trying to compete with Amazon in things like online grocery shopping is like comparing apples with oranges (pun intended).  The tech workers who are ordering their groceries online from Amazon/Whole foods are not the same sort of people who are haunting the aisles of your local Walmart.   While I might cross-shop online for a weed-whacker, I am not buying $15 heads of lettuce from Amazon, thank you - nor $35 jars of mayonnaise.