After Hours: My Wish List -The Shipping Charge Disclosure Campaign, and Ever-Widening Concentric Circles of Yum

Kathy Biehl is the food writer for Diversion magazine and the former longtime dining critic for the Houston Business Journal. She has reviewed restaurants as well for the Houston Press, Time Out New York, My Table and the TONY Guide Eating & Drinking 2000. Her food writing has received awards from the Association of Food Journalists and the Houston Press Club. She is also the author of the Research RoundUp and Web Critic columns, co-author of The Lawyer’s Guide to Internet Research, and an attorney admitted to practice in Texas and New Jersey.

As the year draws to a close, thoughts instinctively turn to contemplating how life might be better when the calendar makes its next big change. This year, instead of focusing on big goals (most of which have looked suspiciously the same for more than a decade), I’m turning to smaller acts that could have a broad impact. With that in mind, I offer two simple, easy-to-implement ideas that have the potential for making this world a more pleasant place. I hope that you will consider joining me in either or both of them.

The Shipping Charge Disclosure Campaign

How many times have you placed an online order and not learned what you were going to pay for shipping until nearly the end of the process? I’m not keeping count. I’m speaking out.

The inspiration for this campaign came to me while placing an order online with Neuchatel Chocolates. Specifically, it came to me when I first learned the amount of the shipping charge after I’d begun the checkout process out and, more importantly, already entered the billing and shipping addresses, a gift card message for the recipient, and every iota of the payment information, down to the security code on the credit card. Because the shipping charge was nearly the cost of the item (a canister of Belgian chocolate covered potato chips, which work a surprisingly sophisticated impact for snack food), I decided to send two instead of merely one. My thinking was that this made sense from a cost accounting standpoint, because I could allocate the delivery charge between the two in my mental ledger. Besides, an additional container would increase my recipient’s chances of actually getting to enjoy some of the contents himself, once his coworkers caught wind of the gift.

Reaching this decision was much, much easier than implementing it. Since the checkout process did not allow for making a change in the order, I had to go back and retrace my steps to the screen before checkout, change the number of items, and then reenter every bit of payment, billing and delivery information – and reconstruct the lengthy gift message. (In fairness I should point out that some of this would not have been necessary had I been a returning customer, because the shopping cart software would have retained my billing and payment information.) In fact, I actually had to do this twice, because of my failure to follow directions and execute all the proper actions for increasing the order.

What added to my irritation was the fact that I had already looked around the site for shipping rates before proceeding to checkout. There was a promising tab called Shipping Policy, but it spoke in terms of delivery methods and the need to pick a prompt one to keep chocolate from melting in transit. This page said nothing about what shipping might actually cost, except to instruct visitors to call for rates for orders in excess of $300. If the rates are in fact accessible on the site prior to checkout, they – or rather, potential customers — could benefit from their being given prominence. One place for a link that comes to mind is the order summary page, which offers the last chance to change the order before checking out.

I’ve singled out Neuchatel Chocolatier only because it is the online retailer that most recently engaged me in a game of hide-the-ball for shipping rates. It’s perplexing to me how many retailers do this. It doesn’t happen with print catalogs. Mail-order catalogs put shipping rates on or near the order form. True, this may be because the customer has to hand-enter the amount (unless it’s a preprinted flat fee), but the point is, catalogs tell you what you’re getting into before you have filled out the entire form. Many online stores made this information readily accessible, too. Amazon, for example, puts a link to shipping rates and policies on the very first page of the site. Two clicks into the heading and there are the rates for every category of product and shipping speed. If posting rates on a web page is somehow too cumbersome, shopping cart software can take care of it. One of my programmer resources advises (when not munching on a co-worker’s chocolate-covered potato chips) that shopping cart software commonly offers several easy options, such as a pop-up window, for disclosing rates.

And so I am launching the Shipping Charge Disclosure Campaign. All this campaign asks of you is that you speak up when you encounter an online store that does not disclose the shipping charge schedule early enough in the shopping process. Let that retailer know how timely disclosure would improve the shopping experience. It wouldn’t be hard, and it would be … what was the concept again? Oh, yeah: customer service.

Ever-Widening Concentric Circles of Yum

This concept grew out of a phone call with a geographically distant friend who enjoys talking about preparing food. When she heard that arroz con pollo was on the menu for my household that day, she gasped that the dish was one of her husband’s favorites and asked if we’d send the recipe. Sure; it’s just the basic recipe from the Goya website, the cook pointed out after I hung up. Maybe not just that, I thought.

And so, I made sure what we sent was more. The cook humored my request to type up the recipe as he actually makes it. Simply dropping that into the mail still didn’t seem like enough. I looked over the ingredients and realized that a couple of the seasonings were not likely to be easy for my friend to come by in her normal shopping flight path. I picked up a large container of each, packed them in a box with the recipe on top and shipped them off. A few days later, my friend happily reported that her husband was at that moment making several meals’ worth of arroz con pollo. She, on the other hand, was already brainstorming additional uses for the adobo seasoning blend and also planning to introduce another cook to it. What started as a gift from one kitchen to another looked to be spreading to more destinations than originally foreseen. Yum, we agreed. Ever-widening concentric circles of yum, I realized, and thus this second campaign was born.

At least once in the coming year, I hope you’ll join me in sharing a dish that you especially enjoy – not a high-maintenance item from a demanding cookbook, but real-life food that you have actually prepared more than a time or two. The point is not making and handing over a finished product, but helping someone else make it for him – or herself. Don’t wait for a special occasion; in fact, doing this when there’s nothing on the calendar will make the gesture stand out all the more. Write up the recipe, with your own personal tips and experiences, and tuck it into a box with a couple of key or non-staple ingredients. Ship the package off to a friend or relation, and think of the home-cooked goodness spreading from your kitchen to another and points beyond.

May you find abiding sweetness in the new year!

Copyright 2005 Kathy Biehl. All Rights Reserved.

Posted in: After Hours, E-Commerce, Food