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Small Parts Orders: Shipping Costs Matter

Online purchasing of parts (or anything else, for that matter) involves shipping. When ordering a few dollars or less worth of parts, the cost of shipping can be several times the cost of the parts themselves. If distributors want to show top-notch customer service, they should offer free shipping on small orders.

For the second time in the last few months, I've needed to replace failed capacitors to repair home electronics. Aluminum electrolytic capacitors have a way of failing. Each time, the cost of the parts I needed was no more than $2, but oh, the shipping costs.

On my most recent capacitor replacement, I needed but a single electrolytic to fix a DVD recorder. We have two identical units, but only one had a failed capacitor. My options were to order the part online or drive 20 minutes to the local electronics parts store. Two years ago, when capacitors in a computer monitor power supply failed, I bought replacements at the local store for $1.07 plus tax. No shipping charges except for a little gas and my time. This time, I decided to go the shipping route.

failed capacitor

The bulging top of an electrolytic capacitor indicates a failure.

I checked four distributors, which I'll call A, B, C, and D. The letters refer to the order I went to the web sites and are in no way indicative of the company names. I recalled free overnight shipping from distributor A from my previous repair job in November. This distributor requires you to register to place an order, but they shouldn't. For some reason, I was unable to log in, even with resetting my password. Distributors B and C had the capacitors for about the same price (all ranged from $0.65 to $0.69 for single quantities), but would charge $8.99 for shipping. Really? Looking at distributor D, I saw free shipping and I could order as a guest. No registration required. I placed the order a recent Saturday night.

The following morning, an invoice arrived in my inbox showing a whopping $9.60 for shipping. You can bet I was calling customer service at 8 AM Monday morning to cancel. For that amount, I'd go to the store. The customer service rep told me that the order had already gone to the warehouse and couldn't be cancelled. I could return the parts (order was for qty. 3) for a refund.

Refund for the cost of the parts ($1.95), but what about the $9.60 shipping plus the cost of return shipping. Why bother?

Not satisfied, I called back and spoke with another rep, who said he would try to cancel the order. A few hours later, an email arrived informing me that the order had indeed been cancelled. That's another issue. Customer service often depends on the person who answers the phone. If you don't like the service, call again and speak to someone else. You might get what you want.

By Monday, distributor A's site was working so I logged in and ordered the parts for $1.97 with free overnight shipping. The company offered standard shipping at a cost of $8.99. Two-day shipping would cost $15.99, yet overnight shipping was free. The capacitors arrived by 9 AM Tuesday. I installed one in the DVD recorder that night and put away the other two as spares in case the other recorder fails soon. All is well. “Management” is happy.

Online sellers will often provide free shipping for large orders, but what about small orders? If not for the free shipping, I would have gone to the local electronics store. We have one such parts source here in Boston. I've been to several in Silicon Valley and one in Rochester, N.Y., but with Radio Shack gone, many neighborhood engineers and technicians have no choice but to order parts online.

Shipping costs make the difference when choosing a distributor for small orders, especially when it's your money.

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3 comments on “Small Parts Orders: Shipping Costs Matter

  1. strongkv
    January 24, 2019

    Yes, I've had the same gripe, high shipping costs for ordering a few parts.  Another option is eBay, there are some smaller US based component vendors that sell there with free shipping.  Look for 10-gauge (Lead Electronics), they have a good selection of electrolytic capacitors.  The only problem is that it is like shopping at Costco, you can't just buy one, you have to buy in bulk, so the cost for just the few parts you need ends up being about the same as paying the shipping costs with the big catalog distributors.  But I figure at least I'm getting more for my money. 

  2. strongkv
    January 24, 2019

    I was talking with an application engineer on the phone the other day who lives close to Mouser's HQ in the Dallas area.  He told me they have a Will Call desk where he can order parts online from his office and pick them up from Will Call on the way home!  Imagine that, having one of the largest and most diverse warehouses of electronic parts in the world on your doorstep.

  3. J. Williams
    February 4, 2019

    If your order from Digi-Key is less than 13 0z. they can ship it to you First Class USPS for $4.57.  And in many cases you will have it in two days. 

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