Stop Believing in Free Shipping

Stop Believing in Free Shipping

How retailers(ˈrētālər) hide(hīd) the costs of delivery(dəˈliv(ə)rē)—and why we’re such suckers(ˈsəkər) for their ploys(ploi)

By Amanda Mull

It was a pair of feather(ˈfeT͟Hər) earrings(ˈi(ə)rˌ(r)iNG) that helped Ann Miceli get out from underneath(ˌəndərˈnēTH) strangers’ cars. For years, Miceli had worked as an auto(ˈôdō) mechanic(məˈkanik) and picked up shifts in her spare(spe(ə)r) time at Indianapolis(ˌindēəˈnapələs) restaurants. One day, she came across those earrings, and “it kind of sparked something.” Miceli bought a pair, and then some supplies to make her own. She listed some of her creations in a shop on Etsy and named it PrettyVagrant(ˈvāgrənt).

That was in 2011. In the intervening(in(t)ərˈvēniNG) years, Miceli has sold nearly 30,000 of her handmade earrings and feather hair extensions, all of which she assembles(əˈsembəl) by hand at home. After a couple of years, Miceli quit(kwit) her job as a mechanic. Etsy “has given me the opportunity to work from home and watch my grandkids,” she told me. Everything was humming(həm) along nicely until last summer, when the site began implementing a new search algorithm that gives priority to sellers who guarantee free shipping. Those who charged even a few dollars, like Miceli, were removed from their spots on the first page of search results. In August, Miceli’s revenue(ˈrevəˌn(y)o͞o) was down 40 percent from the previous year—a huge dip(dip) that she blames(blām) on the free-shipping finagling(fəˈnāɡ(ə)l).

Etsy said it had no choice: Buyers’ expectations had changed, and it felt(felt) compelled(kəmˈpel) to respond. The company told Miceli to raise(rāz) her prices to compensate(ˈkämpənˌsāt) for and disguise(disˈgīz) shipping fees. But when Miceli looked around, her competitors(kəmˈpedədər) seemed to be simply eating the cost, which she couldn’t afford(əˈfôrd) to do.