Some Gadget Ideas for Christmas Shopping

Here are some gadgets I’ve used over the past year that I’d recommend as presents for people into that sort of thing:

Chamberlain MyQ WiFi Garage Door Opener – This allows you to open and close your garage door from your phone. And check whether your garage door is open or closed. I’ve found it useful when I leave the house but can’t remember for sure if I closed the garage door. I’ve also used it to let people working on my house into the garage while I was out. It took around 30 minutes to install. The only thing that’s not 100% about this is the app, which is slow to open. But:

Wink Hub. – A Wink Hub allows you to control a large number of WiFi connected devices from a single app that worked quite well. You connect this to your WiFi network then tell it what WiFi connected devices you’ve got, such as the garage door opener. It also supports notifications, so you can see when your garage door is opened, or door locks, motion detectors, etc. And, it makes it easy to set up automated tasks, like turning things on/off at certain times of day. A lot of devices from a wide variety of companies can work with the Wink hub, which is nice. You don’t have to worry about buying this, then only being able to buy, say, Wink deadbolts for your house.

PWR+ Cell Phone Charger. – This is a Mini USB charger, so will work with most Android phones. The beauty of this is it charges your phone around 4X faster than the one that ships with phones. Basically, it’s ridiculous that cell phones don’t ship with chargers like this.

EyeFi Mobi SD Card – Assuming you still use a camera other than the one on your phone, this SD card connects to your phone and auto-syncs photos from your phone to your camera as you take them. You can then upload or email those pics from your phone without ever needing to take the card out of the camera.

Amazon’s Winning the Last Mile of Retailing

Farhad Manjoo at Slate has an article up talking about how Amazon’s game plan is or may change once they start collecting sales taxes. Under their current model or resisting doing so, they tend to distribute their warehouses in low-cost, low-tax states. But, if they started collecting sales taxes in Minnesota, would they also consider adding a local presence? Manjoo thinks so.

I took a look at the return labels on the Amazon orders I received this week. Kentucky, Ohio, and Nevada were the sources for my Cheerios, dish scrub, sawdust pellets, and headphones that arrived this week within 2 days of when I placed the orders. Those items could surely arrive faster if they were shipped from a warehouse of Stinson, or from the old Ford Plant in St. Paul.

But Amazon is investing billions to make next-day delivery standard, and same-day delivery an option for lots of customers. If it can pull that off, the company will permanently alter how we shop. To put it more bluntly: Physical retailers will be hosed.

While some of the items that arrived at my house are rare purchases (although I’m pretty good at destroying headphones), one that’s a routine purchase is Cheerios. In fact, it’s so routine that I subscribe to Cheerios on Amazon so they’ll automatically ship them to me on a regular basis. Amazon offers a discount for this called Subscribe & Save.

Here is what Byerly’s & Lund’s are selling Cheerios for on their website:

Cheerios at Lunds & Byerly's

Here’s what Coborn’s Delivers charges whether you use delivery or pickup:

Cheerios at Coborns

And here’s what Amazon charged me for my last order of 4 boxes of the same 14oz boxes of Cheerios:

Cheerios at Amazon

Bylery’s charges $4.95 to let you order online, then drive to one of their stores to pick up your order. Or, they’ll deliver your order for $9.95. Coborns charges $5 for delivery if you order $50 or more, or $9.95 if you order less than $50 of stuff. You can pick up for free at their warehouse in New Hope.

Amazon, on the other hand, shipped Cheerios to my house from Kentucky with no shipping charges, and for $1 less per box.

While not many people are probably ordering their Cheerios on Amazon yet, I think Manjoo is onto something here. With Amazon’s Prime shipping (free 2-day shipping to members) and Subscribe & Save discounts, they know where their most loyal customers live and even what they’ll be buying in the future, which would make it pretty darn easy to place pre-ordered products closer to those customers. Rather than paying UPS or FedEx to ship Cheerios from Kentucky, it may make more economic sense for Amazon’s to have Cheerios show up at a warehouse in Minneapolis where they’re immediately transfered to local delivery trucks for same day delivery along with books, electronics, clothes, and hardware supplies.

Order Fulfillment is the Secret Sauce

Until recently, big box stores, including now-struggling electronics stores and now-struggling grocery chains, were able to compete largely based on pricing power. They were good at moving products around the country and putting them on shelves, but it turns out that some companies are better at that key part of that type of business. For example, WalMart and Target are darn good at efficiently moving products from all over the world to store shelves where they rely upon customers to spend their own time and money coming to their stores to purchase items.

The next generation move in retail is to win the last mile. If Amazon can get the same product to my door at the same price or less than what Best Buy, SuperValu, WalMart or Target charges, why would I waste my time and money driving to their stores, navigating through ugly parking lots, finding products in a store that I can find online in seconds, then waiting in line to purchase them?

Of those five brands, only one has mastered the last mile of order fulfillment. Since Amazon doesn’t have to pay for retail real estate locations, massive parking lots, low-density aisle displays (and the army of stockers it takes to keep things looking organized), checkout staff, store security, or store management, they may have a few dollars they can throw toward their own fleets of delivery trucks.

I may be wrong, but it seems likely that the company that can get you what you want when you want to where you want at a competitive price has a good shot as earning and retaining loyal customers.

Environmental Impact of Online Shopping

I’ve been kind of hardcore about buying things online for a few years now, mostly out of laziness. However, I think there may be some environmental benefits to my laziness as well.

As I see it, if I drive to target, buy 20 pounds of stuff, and drive home, I actually burned fuel to move a car many miles, both ways, to get that 20 pounds of stuff to my home. The weight of my car, myself, and the stuff in my car dwarfs the weight of what I’ve purchased..

If I buy the same stuff online, it comes to my door in a truck that’s specialized for efficient delivery of packages. It likely left a delivery facility that morning full, so the energy burned by that truck throughout the day can be devided among all of the packages that delivery truck delivered throughout the day.

This isn’t new thinking, but it is fairly difficult to quantify. One attempt by MindClick GSM outlined on TriplePundit came up with the following perspective on how the numbers play out during holiday shopping:

The researchers took these numbers and ran with them, calculating that the negative environmental impact of an in-store purchase made on Black Friday is 50 times that of an online purchase made on Cyber Monday. And in more general terms, it found that carbon emissions related to purchasing an item inside a store represents an increase of more than 15 times that of an online purchase.

There are a ton of variables at play here, including:

How much stuff did you buy in a physical shopping trip?
How far did you drive to do it?
Did you make additional stops to make your trip more efficient?
How efficient is your vehicle?

I’m not looking at how far items were shipped to you since I’m assuming that most of the crap one buys travels roughly the same distance, outside of the last few miles, whether you buy it locally or online.

Cool-Companies runs the numbers as well, looking at what’s involved in getting a book to your house. Interestingly, the point out that it takes a boatload more energy to climate control a retail store than it does to store books in a warehouse.

We calculated the ratio of building energy per book sold in traditional bookstores versus on-line retailer Amazon.com to be 16-to-1.

Then, they break down the transportation costs, pointing out that it may, at least in some cases, be less carbon intensive to toss a book on a plane, then truck, versus driving across town (and back) to transport a pound of goods to your home.

And contrary to what most people think, Internet shopping uses less energy to get a package to your house: Shipping 10 pounds of packages by overnight air – the most energy-intensive delivery -uses 40 percent less fuel than driving roundtrip to the mall. Shipping by truck saves 90 percent.

For more on this, check out the carbon impact scenarios Cool-Companies offers for planes, trains, and automobiles.

Personally, while I try to make a positive environmental impact when I can, my bigger motivators, in this case, are convenience and cost. I can buy stuff faster, and often cheaper, online than I can buy heading to a physical store. Commodity products such as, well, pretty much everything at Target, can be found online for cheaper (including, maybe, at Target.com if they ever get their act together).

If buying stuff while sitting on my couch is better for the environment, great. That’s one more excuse to avoid acres and acres of blacktop parking lots.

Where to Shop Other than Target or Best Buy?

Jason DeRusha brings up a good point about the challenge of making out locally headquartered big box stores feel some pain over their funding of the newly formed “independent expenditure campaign”, MNForward (which is using the money to run ads in support Tom Emmer).

Jason DeRusha on Boycott Challenges

Target has been getting some national attention over this due to Emmer’s horrendous political record on GLBT issues. The Targeting GLBT blog is doing a great job rolling up the blowback. It sure looks like Target has receive more than $150,000 worth of negative publicity in over their $150,000 investment in political ads for Emmer.

Now that Best Buy has threw some money into MNForward as well, where should people who are not interested in supporting Target or Best Buy turn to buy household items and electronics? David Brauer brainstormed Amazon.com:

David Brauer on Amazon as a Target & Best Buy Alternative

I think Brauer’s onto something there. In fact, I’m already there. I looked up my historical transactions at Target via my Mint.com account and found out that I’ve spent a whopping $151.88 at Target over the past 2.5 years.

My Spending at Target

Over that same time period, I had no credit card transactions at Best Buy, but I do remember using a gift card someone gave me.

Over the same time period, I’ve spent $22,479.07 at Amazon. How? Amazon is where I buy nearly all of my electronics. I buy granola bars, quinoa, bike supplies, travel gear, lots of books, laundry detergent, toilet paper, napkins, shavers, deodorant, crackers, toothpaste, hardware supplies, etc. Nearly everything I could buy at Target or Best Buy outside of soda. Nearly all of it ships to me for free in 2 days as an Amazon Prime member, which is clearly worth it based on how much I buy from them. (By the way, you can become an Amazon Prime member for free if you’re a student with a .edu email address. Seriously, do that now.)

Regarding Amazon’s political contributions, see for yourself at Open Secrets. And, here are the numbers for Amazon’s CEO, Jeff Bezos.

Regarding the environmental impact, I don’t think it’s as large as Brauer seems to think. Think about this: If I buy something from Target, it makes its way all the way to the Target store via a combination of boats, trains, and trucks from all over the world. But then I use my car to make a 5 mile round trip to Target to move a few pounds of product the last few miles to my home. When I buy from Amazon, last few miles of delivery are via UPS or USPS delivery trucks that have much better products to vehicle weight ratios, which makes me think that the environmental cost of purchasing from Amazon may actually be less than Target or Best Buy. (I’d love to see more data on this theory.)

Either way, it’s good to know that there is at least one good alternative to Target and Best Buy for those who’d choose to spend their money elsewhere for a variety of reasons. For me, the switch to Amazon was due to convenience (I immediately buy stuff when I need it from my computer or phone, which saves time), price (Amazon is very competitive AND I only buy what I need rather than fill my cart with impulse buys), and customer service (I’d rather sample reviews sorted by quality on Amazon than talk to a random member of the Blue Shirt Nation).

Target and Best Buy’s moves into union busting, gay bashing, xenophobic politics isn’t what moved me away from these two retailers, but it certainly reinforces that I’ve made the right decision for myself.

America’s Fitness in Amazon’s Watches

What does Amazon.com’s vast selection of watches tell us about America’s fitness:

Sports Watches vs Sport Fan Watches

Twice as many sports fan watches to sports watches? Do Americans prefer to watch rather than participate in sports? Based on the best seller lists, it seems like this skews to the South, with many of Amazon’s best selling sports fan watches tying to NASCAR, the Dallas Cowboy’s, or the U of Texas.

How to Buy Discount Gift Cards Online

Here’s a little tip on how you can buy gift cards to many popular online and offline retailers at a discount.

1. Go to Bing.com and join their Cashback program.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with Bing, it’s the recently rebranded search engine owned by Microsoft. As a marketing deal, they’re running a Cashback program where you can receive rebates on items purchased on popular websites after clicking through from select ads on Bing.

2. Search for products on Bing. One suggested search is for “Nintendo Wii”.

3. Click the Bing Cashback ad for Ebay. Here is an example of what the ads look like:

Bing Cashback Ads

At Ebay, you should see something like the following in the header:

Cashback on Ebay

4. Search for gift cards on Ebay. You’ll then need to click to filter for BuyItNow gift cards because they’re only offering CashBack bonuses on fixed rate items and not auctions.

5. Buy buy buy. You’re limited to $2500 in annual cashback savings, but you could stock up on, say, $25,000 in gift cards for retailers you plan to shop with anyway and call it a year.

It’s worth noting that this has caused some inflation in the gift card market. You’ll often see gift cards selling for above face value, so you may need to pay, say, $105 for a $100 gift card, which would net out to costing you $90-$95 each (still a great deal).

Review: On Target: How the World’s Hottest Retailer Hit a Bull’s-Eye

I’ve started reading the 2003 book, On Target, which takes a glowing look at how Minnesota’s favorite big box chain retailer came to be what it is today.

Clearly, a book with the subtitle, “How the World’s Hottest Retailer Hit a Bull’s-Eye” is going to present the company favorably at every opportunity.

So far, the writing has come across as elitist and mean to me. For example,

“Wal-Mart, which is the nation’s largest seller of apparel, may have Target in its crosshairs, but for the down-home discounter to actually compete on Target’s turf would take a cultural and image revolution – one that would risk alienating its traditional customers, who are far more interested in saving hard-earned money on toilet paper and snack food than seeking a Mossimo tee to pair with Armani slacks, or a Michael Graves toaster to complement a stainless steel Sub-Zero refrigerator.”

The author does seem to capture the Target culture with that spin.

In my opinion, Target’s specialty is their ability run up women’s Target credit cards by convincing them to measure their self-worth based on whether their napkins are in season, or what their can opener says about them as a person, rather than focusing on saving a few bucks on household staples.

A Term I Like: Concious Consumption

I think Dan Stanek is onto something with the concept of “conscious consumption” trumping “conspicuous consumption” these days:

What changes are you observing in consumer values?

What I am seeing is the pendulum swinging away from the conspicuous consumption of the 1980’s and 1990’s and toward conscious consumption. And this is having a profound impact on the retail industry. Overall, the current economic situation is accelerating trends toward frugality and placing importance on relationships and people instead of things. The importance on things to make someone happy is being questioned. I am seeing almost an anti-consumerism sentiment.

Conspicuous consumption does seem to be on the decline. I see fewer people flaunting brands that say, “I spent way too much on this just because I could.” This doesn’t necessarily translate into a drop in quality since brands like Lexus seem to cross over between conspicuous and conscious consumption.

I see conscious consumption in the choices friends are making with the cars they buy (higher mileage), home choices (access to shorter commutes and transit), clothes (less label driven), and food (learning more about where their food is coming from).

People are spending less on things that provide little long-term value (ostentatious brands & homes) yet more on things they can proudly justify (organic food, handmade products from Etsy, and energy saving products.

Of course, there are exceptions to this trend on Black Friday.

What’s Up with BSN No-Xplode Blue Raspberry?

This is currently the fastest growing product on Amazon’s Health & Personal Care category, jumping 96,707% from 50,340th to 52nd on Amazon’s H&PC rankings:

What’s going on here?

Check out an excerpt from the top customer review, which 11 out of 11 people have found helpful:

My muscles felt so tight and big, that I just wanted to lift more and more. By the time I was done, I went to the lockeroom to change and saw a monster in the mirror. I’ve had great pumps before, but this was insane! It didn’t even look like me at all; it felt great. I’ve been using it for 2 months now and I don’t train a day without it. Highly, highly recommended.

That’s a universally helpful review? It sounds more like an infomercial to me.

Perhaps this product has been getting pumped up on itself?

Best Buy Outlet Price-Check

Best Buy RewardZone reminded me that they have an online outlet store. I decided to run some spot checks on their point and shoot digital camera prices vs Amazon’s.

The first price listed is Best Buy’s and the 2nd is Amazon’s (both taken at the same time on March 31).

– FinePix 6.3MP Digital Camera – Silver: $119 vs $129

– Casio – EXILIM 7.2MP Digital Camera – Blue: $179.99 vs $159.88

– Samsung – 8.2MP Digital Camera – Silver: $299.99 vs $249.88

– Samsung – Digimax 5.0MP Digital Camera – Silver: $349.99 vs $349.99

– Spectra – Hello Kitty VGA Digital Camera: $26.99 vs $39.99

– The Cheetah Girls Pix Click Micro Digital Camera: $15.99 vs $27.99

– American Idol Keychain Digital Camera – $12.99 vs $5.75

Just because something is sold in an outlet doesn’t mean it’s going to be the best price you can find.

Comparison shopping consumer electronics is very easy. Just search by the product’s model number (and take a minute look beyond Best Buy or Amazon if you’re serious about getting the lowest price).

Does Simon Cowell cry in embarrassment or laugh all the way to the bank every time an American Idol Keychain Digital Camera is sold?