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Points of Articulation

yo go re
Win the War: Pay for gas or shipping costs?

Every month when Mattel puts the new exclusives on their website, the fandom complaints begin again. The high price, the inaccessibility of the website, the perpetual understocking... you know the deal. I'm not here to go into all that (yet). The subject of today's discussion is the way we're getting raked over the coals by shipping rates.

If you're buying online, you have to take the cost of shipping into account. Say you want to buy the new Captain Marmelade action figure, but Toys "4" Me and Bullseye Store are both sold out. The only place in town that has it is S-Mart, and they're charging $9.99. Ten bucks? Screw that noise! So you go online and find someone selling the figure for $5. It all seems great, until you put it in your cart and notice the $6 shipping and handling fee. Son of a crap!

When you're shopping online, you absolutely have to consider the s+h as part of the cost of buying. When I do my "What I Bought" breakdowns, tax is included on the things I bought in stores, and shipping is included on the things I bought online. You can't ignore the money leaving your pocket just to make yourself feel better about what you're spending.

However, there exists a segment of the collector community - apologists, scalpers, well-intentioned fools - who will tell you that you shouldn't feel bad about paying for shipping when you shop online, because you'd be spending an equivalent amount in time and gas to go to the stores and find the same thing. Is it true? Let's find out.

As I write this, the national average for gas is $2.75/gallon. To make the math easier, we'll round that off to $3. My car gets 32 mpg in the city, so let's call it 30. That breaks down to 10¢ per mile, which is going to make the math we do next very simple.

According to Google Maps, my Wal*Mart is 3.3 miles away - call it 3.5, and therefore every trip to Wal*Mart costs me 70¢ whether I buy anything or not. There's a Target in the same direction: a round-trip there would cost 90¢.

On the other side of town there's another Wal*Mart, 5.9 miles away from me. Rounding off, it costs $1.20 to go over there. Target and Toys Я Us in the same area would cost $1.10 each. Here, have a chart:

Wal*Mart 1
Target 1
Wal*Mart 2
Target 2
Toys Я Us

Seems fairly straightforward, doesn't it? Well, yes, but it's misleading. How often do you think I drive to the far side of town and only go to one store? Nearly never. That would be stupid. How about you? Stores tend to clump - do you only go to one, or do you hit all the ones that are in one spot? Look at my chart up there: WM, Target and TRU are within 200 yards of each other; in fact, driving from Target to Toys Я, I pass Wal*Mart, so stopping there really costs less than a penny. For the same $1.20 it would take to go just to Wal*Mart, I can hit up three stores. On the near side of town, going to both Wal*Mart and Target is 85¢, total. A big circle of both sides of town? $1.60 for five stores - six, if you count the Kmart I pass on the way home.

Full circle

We're getting closer to a clear picture, but note that this still doesn't tell the full story. I very rarely make a special trip just to look for toys. Say I need some cough medecine at Wal*Mart, or soda at Target - well hey, might as well hit up the other store nearby, as well. Regularly scheduled trip to the comicshop? Crossing the street to Wal*Mart only adds a mile, total. Right now, that costs me a dime. I could take that trip 50 times and it still wouldn't cost me as much as shipping from most online stores. 90 times for Mattel.

Of course, that's just my situation. Yours will be different, depending on where you live, what you drive, and how far out of your way you have to go to get to the stores. Discussing this with one of our readers, he said he lives 40 miles from TRU, and another 15 miles beyond that for Target. Sucks to be him, and obviously online shopping is the smart choice for him. You have to do your own math. But let's look at averages.

We'll go back to the $2.75/gallon figure for this, just to be fair. The average vehicle in the US gets 25 mpg (thanks, SUV owners!), so that works out to 11¢ per mile - you'd have to drive nine miles for every $1 spent on shipping. I have no idea what the average shipping charge is, but let's say it's $7.00: in order to spend more on gas than you'd spend on shipping, you'd have to drive 64 miles. And remember, that's 64 miles without finding anything. Sure, if you only collect one line and you're doing your shopping based on people online saying things are out versus when they actually start showing up in stores for real, then yeah, that may happen. But for most collectors, it's a joke to say you're spending the same amount on gas. (And if you think we're cheating by using $2.75 for these numbers when we used $3 before, the difference works out to be one cent per mile - statistically negligible.)

Find your distances

The second half of the excuse is "time" - again, something that fluctuates depending on your circumstances. For me, going to all five stores takes about two hours. Wow, what a soul-crushing trip! Yes, that's time I could be spending working on OAFE, playing videogames or making love to many beautiful women, but face it: if you're a toy fan, going toy shopping counts as leisure activity. You're not going to Toys Я Us in lieu of doing something else. It's not a chore. You're going because you hope to find something, and even if the trip is "wasted" (ie, you don't see anything new) you've still gone to one of your favorite places to do one of your favorite things. Claiming that paying for shipping saves you time is a crock, especially if you're ordering from a store that puts things on sale at a certain time and date.

Say, for instance, right off the top of my head, no thought at all, you're ordering from a store that starts its regular sale on the second Monday of the month at noon EST. And this store has a severe problem with its products going out of stock, so you need to order first thing. Now, instead of using your leisure time to place this "time-saving" online order, you're taking time out of work, or school, or what have you. You are literally wasting your important time to buy online - walking through Target a couple times is more of a hassle to you than that? Face it, unless you have some phenomenally outlandish shopping habits or moved away from civilization to avoid light pollution, "time" isn't even a factor in this discussion.

Now, it's important to note that we're not saying "only suckers pay for shipping." I order toys online all the time. I started getting DCU by the case when Series 8 never showed up in stores. I lucked into both Series 9 and 10, but from 11 on, I've been ordering. I pay the shipping because yes, there really is the chance that I would have spent more on gas while trying in vain to beat the scalpers to the punch. Now Series 12 and 13 have proven to be fairly plentiful, though, so I'll have to reconsider my choice in the future. I buy Minimates online because my local comicshop won't get them in, and paying scalper prices for the variant online would push the cost higher overall.

The point we're trying to get across is that you have to learn to recognize when it's smarter to pay for shipping versus paying for gas. And since that's a complicated thing to think about, here's a calculator to make it easier:

Gas vs. Shipping Calculator
(for best results, fill in all fields)

Miles Traveled Between Fill-Ups:

Average Gallons Per Fill-Up:

Current Gas Price: $

Shipping Cost: $


To say that exorbitant shipping and handling fees will be recouped in time and gas is flippant and unsupportable, except in the most extreme cases - living stupidly far from the stores, wanting to buy things Mattel makes, etc. But still, it never hurts to check: a smart shopper is a frugal shopper, and the less you spend on gas or shipping, the more you can spend on the toys themselves.

So plug your numbers into the gas-usage calculator up there, and find out the truth. Swing by the message board and tell us what your results are. And if you disagree with our assessment, let's hear it - but be ready to back it up.

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