The price of a clock radio we found at Target.com: $9.99. The cost of shipping and handling said clock: $6.13. That’s reasonable, based on what UPS or the post office would have charged, but who wants to pay two-thirds of a product’s price to have it sent? Especially at holiday time, you’ll want to avoid S&H gotchas. Here’s how:
Look for free shipping
Check retailer websites or search for “free shipping coupons.” A few sites, including Shoes.com and Zappos.com, ship free to you and from you (for returns).
Wait for the charge
Some online merchants don’t provide even an estimate of shipping fees until you’re almost through checkout. Don’t authorize payment until you know all of the charges.
Calculate what ‘free’ costs
Sellers of infomercial products and those on auction sites sometimes use S&H charges to compensate for low-priced or “free” products. It would have cost us $56.84 to order a $19.99 Awesome Auger tool plus a “free” power drill, weeder, and power extender.
Buy at a walk-in store
That eliminates shipping and handling. Some retailers, including Walmart and Staples, let you buy online and ship the item to a local store at no charge.
Be sure you’ll like the product
You must usually pay to ship back unwanted items. Research carefully before you buy, and make sure gifts are wanted.
Find out about breakage or loss
Read and print out the retailer’s shipping policy. With some retailers, you assume the risk of damage or loss when the product is delivered to the mail carrier, not to your door. Some carriers accept liability for items shipped within the U.S. (UPS and FedEx cover items up to $100; the U.S. Postal Service automatically provides $100 insurance for Express Mail only.) You might need the retailer to process a claim and forward any payment.
Make sure you have time
Under the federal Mail or Telephone Order Merchandise Trade Regulation Rule, retailers must ship ordered goods when they promise or, if no promise is made, within 30 days after the order is completed (50 days if you also applied for credit with the retailer). If a merchant can’t meet the deadline, it must obtain your OK to delay–but it can interpret a lack of response as permission as long as it says so and gives you a new shipping date no more than another 30 days away. Otherwise, it has to cancel your order. Respond to any requests for a delay, and ask for written confirmation of a promised shipping date. If possible, pay by credit card so that you can dispute charges if the retailer violates the law or mishandles your order.
Originally published in Consumer Reports