The online revolution was once pitched as a medium of convenience. It could be 3 a.m. and you could wrap up your holiday shopping, spooning a tub of Haagen-Dazs while wearing nothing more than boxer shorts and a pair of bunny slippers. Didn't find what you were looking for? Found it but didn't like the price? The competition and comparison-shopping sites were all just a click away.
But now with prices at the pump showing no signs of letting up, Internet retailers have another selling point. It's no longer simply a matter of just battling it out for a parking space at your favorite suburban mall. It's how kindly your gas tank will treat you both ways. Drivers are suddenly discerning when it comes to how far they will take their joyrides.
Great! Right? Well, every cyberspace cloud has a silvery surcharged lining. Online orders don't magically appear on your doorstep. UPS
But therein lies the rub seasoning. Free shipping has become e-tailing's killer app. Amazon.com
Others like Overstock.com
How will these companies respond? Would Amazon lose some sales if its everyday free shipping policy only applied to orders greater than $50? Would bargain hunters flocking to Overstock's clearance bins flinch at seeing $2.95 inch up to $3.95?
These wouldn't be phantom hikes. Everyone realizes that the cost of moving wares around has gotten more expensive lately. Thankfully, FedEx and UPS already have their routes to run anyway, so the damage isn't so much incremental as simply operational. The surcharges are reasonably cheap -- for now. But who will bear the burden of higher retail prices?
Do not gas go
Products don't just grow from the soil beneath the Amazon warehouses. There is nothing organic in that strip mall out in suburbia. Imports now have higher cargo rates to tack on, while even domestic goods have to be moved around the country. Trucking companies have had little choice but to add fuel surcharges, and how could they not? Whether you are shopping online or at a local store, inflation is real, and the added costs have been mostly absorbed by the end user. Wake up! That's you, bub.
With fuel taking a bite every leg of the way, the real winners may be the sellers of goods with the least stops along the way. While Dell
Yet the ultimate consumer-direct prize should probably go to eBay
Fuel for the money
Ultimately, online companies already have distinct advantages. They know their customers better. They have leaner operations. As an investor, knowing that has probably been a lucrative discovery. Amazon, Dell, and eBay have all been worthy Motley Fool Stock Advisor selections, and Overstock was singled out last year in our Motley Fool Hidden Gems newsletter.
This doesn't mean that the pure online retailers have the pie to themselves. After a few fiascoes and false starts, traditional bricks-and-mortar chains are now skilled netizens. While their virtual outlets are often sandbagged with the heavy operating burden of offline retailing and the conflicts of marketing one medium over the other, they can't be ignored. There is a lot more worldly width in the World Wide Web these days.
Yet that is even more reason for the dot-com loyalists to band together around their peers. Rising frustration at the pump will make us all ultimately poorer but this is also the perfect time for online retailers to capitalize on their strengths and make believers out of reluctant homebodies.
Liquid optimism? You bet. Pop open that gas tank. Fill 'er up!
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Longtime Fool contributor Rick Munarriz favors online shopping over trekking out to the mall. Now if only they would find a way to cram a food court into cyberspace! He does not own shares in any of the companies mentioned in this story. Rick's stock holdings can be viewed online, as can the Fool's disclosure policy.