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Why Shipping Isn't Free

When you think of free shipping, one particular company probably comes to mind. And while everyone loves getting something for free (guilty!) — the truth is that we all pay the cost of ‘free’ in some way. “Free shipping”’s actually a bit of a con.

We’ve all started to take free shipping for granted — as if by magic our items go from the storeroom to our doorstep. In reality, someone is paying for that service. Sometimes it’s the consumer and sometimes it’s the business — but if it’s the business, then only the big boxes can truly compete. And who’s job is getting pinched to make it happen?

Free shipping memberships cost well over $100 per year. Unless you’re ordering from one retailer a LOT, then it’s likely cheaper to just pay the shipping cost each time you order. When retailers offer free shipping without a subscription, it’s likely that cost is simply rolled into the price of the items you buy — so you are paying for it covertly. And sometimes if you want to zoom out to 10,000 feet, you may be subsidizing one company’s profits by paying your taxes, i.e. tax breaks and aggressive negotiating tactics. But let’s not go that far… right?

Large corporations pioneered free shipping to entice customers online, and they’ve made it seem easy. But, while billion-dollar companies can best absorb this cost, even the biggest retailers are losing money on free shipping. For a small business with tight margins, that loss could mean going under. Preferential contracts (which now threaten our postal system) allow large companies to negotiate better shipping rates than small ones — meaning that, for a business like ours, shipping costs a bigger chunk of a smaller pie. 

Shipping is a service that allows us to bridge space and conserve time. It lets us buy things that aren’t available nearby, and offers time-saving convenience, and for many unable to make it out - a lifeline. It allows small businesses to reach customers afar and compete in a global marketplace. But when something is given away for free, we tend to forget its value. Though shipping fulfillment is an essential modern service — we’ve been led to believe that we shouldn’t have to pay for it. How much are we devaluing the hard work that fulfillment employees and delivery drivers do when we’re unwilling to actually pay for it?

This convenience hurts us in other ways too. The lure of free shipping drives us to place more small orders — instead of bundling purchases. And as big retailers offer ever-faster delivery, packages are even less consolidated. All those boxes full of air, shipped separately, require more cars, trucks, planes, and definitely more packaging. In this way, free shipping is increasing congestion in our cities, adding pollutants to our air, and overflowing our landfills with trash. And if it’s not clear to you, the systems of recycling have begun to break down. These are true costs that we will all pay together for “free” shipping.

We charge for delivery and shipping for many reasons. Your help with shipping and delivery fees enables our small business to stay in business. Small retailers don’t have the same margins as the big guys because we prioritize different things. We pay our staff a living wage. We build ways of giving back right into our business plan — be it monetary donations, programs for artists or leadership in our community. And, while our amazing customers hail from all around the country, we are a brick and mortar store with rent, payroll, and utilities due here in Burlington, VT.

So, while we want our products to be affordable, we also want them to reflect their true cost. Doing this ensures that we can keep doing business in a way that enriches our community, not just us. We’re not here to make millions, or to coerce you into buying things you don’t need. But when you shop with us you are supporting 500+ American artists and makers. And we can’t ask our makers, our staff or our environment to shoulder the cost of giving shipping away for free. So next time you check your cart and see that shipping charge, just remember it’s probably a small price to pay having your things materialize at your front door. And when you pay for shipping with ANY small business, know it’s going somewhere great. Thank you for appreciating the hardworking humans that get that box to you.

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