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A buyer cuts loose in the world of dotcom 'freebies'

Even in the bold new world of cybersales, the time-worn tactics get trotted out.

Internet retailers have begun to use old marketing standbys, like free coupons, to actually get customers to buy.

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But, in true e-commerce fashion, getting hits ("eyeballs") on the site still seems more important than making a profit on a sale. Can buyers benefit?

Getting something for nothing has long been a favorite pastime of mine, so I decided to give the whole Internet freebie thing a run for its money - to get as much stuff for as little money as possible.

I started with iwon.com, a search engine where I could potentially win $10,000,000 just for searching the Internet. I quickly learned that my prospects of winning were small. But I must say that watching your entries accumulate is sort of fun.

I found several interesting Web sites where all sorts of Internet coupons are found and posted. (Among them: pricezilla.com, thatscheap.com, mycoupons.com, and dealitup.com.)

For the most part, these were the standard "$10 off when you spend $25 or more." But the more aggressive sites would give $10 to $75 off of any amount purchased. I focused on these.

When all was said and done, I had bought $300 worth of retail-priced items for $135, including shipping. The bad news: 15 Internet retailers now had my e-mail address, which I can imagine is going to lead to dozens of e-mails a week offering me everything I don't need.

The reality is, because of these coupons, I bought things I would have never bought. I got a "Pennino Gondola" poster from Niebaum-Coppola.com, which is apparently Francis Ford Coppola's personal online retail store, for free.

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I did have to pay $5.95 for $2 worth of shipping. I paid $2.51 (includes 75 cents in shipping costs) for a $20.95 bottle of Hi-Energy Multi-Vitamins for Men at Vitamins.com, which I will never take because I thoroughly despise the smell.

I bought a picture frame, a box of ink pens, and an address stamp from three different online retailers for $12.00, of which $7.95 was shipping.

Truly, I did get some really great deals on some things that I could use. At Drugstore.com, I got a 12-pack of Gillette Mach 3 razor blades for $3.49 in shipping. I love a sharp razor and I have worn my credit card out paying $8.99 plus tax for a six pack of these at Wal-Mart every few weeks.

I received $20 toward anything I wanted at Healthcentralrx.com, for spending $20. I ended up with seven tubes of Crest toothpaste and seven sticks of Degree antiperspirant.

But the ultimate goal of coupons is to entice you to shop. And, at a few stores, I splurged a little. That is, if you call $35 for a $110 Cross pen set, $14.95 for a contemporary lamp, or $15.40 for a 1998 Holiday Barbie, splurging.

I learned a lot from my little experiment. Every Web site that I visited was smooth, quick, and painless. E-retailers have begun to learn that being able to find what you are looking for amid a seemingly endless barrage of links and searches is just as important as not having to go out in the rain to pick up your girl friend's mascara.

I learned that I'll buy just about anything when I'm only paying $2.95 in shipping and that I'll be a loyal customer - as long as they are throwing $75 in free merchandise at me.

But when the coupons expire, so does my desire to sit at my computer and shop.

Why bother, when instead I could be watching the 65-inch, wide-screen, front-projection, HDTV-ready Toshiba television with top-of-the-line, double-drawer DVD player? I bought it online during this experiment (at consumer-direct.com, TV and DVD: retail: $7,499; shipping: $189; final cost: $5,470).

No coupon that time.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society