Friday, August 2, 2013

Adventures in trans-pacific purchasing

Character is what you are in the dark.
-- attributed to Dwight L. Moody
One of the truths - I consider it sad, you might not - of the RC hobby is that a lot of things you want to use for it are only available from, or available at a steep discount from, various vendors in Asia. While this isn't a bad thing in and of itself, it does carry certain risks and problems - not the least of which is that they almost invariable only accept payment through PayPal.

Quality of products

Many of the merchants manage to have lower prices by doing little or no quality control. My experience has been that infant mortality rates are very high - 50% or more. In particular, Banggood, Tmart and Good Luck Buy are on the wrong side of that 50% failure rate for one or more items in my orders from them.
Some merchants do some quality testing before shipping. I recommend using those if possible, but that doesn't avoid all the problems.

Being on the other side of the world

Being on the other side of the world makes everything else so much more painful. For instance, if you're really lucky, you'll get shipments in slightly more than a week. Four weeks is closer to normal. Returns aren't any faster. One thing I have noticed: shipping from Hong Kong is usually faster than shipping from mainland China. Keep that in mind when placing an order.
Once you've gotten a defective item, them being on the other side of the makes the issue especially frustrating. Sending a reply and getting a response in less than 24 hours is a rarity, just because of the time difference. Of course, this is exacerbated by the people on the other end being - like almost all customer support staff - underpaid script monkeys. In this case, they're underpaid script monkeys who don't speak the same language as you, so it's not unusual to need several of those day-long iterations to clarify things.
I will admit that - for the most part - once I got them to understand what was broken and sent them the photographic or video evidence they inevitably require - something I've never had to do with either my LHS (better known as your Local Hobby Shop) or Amazon - they tend to deal with items that cost less than the cost of shipping reasonably. But you're now stuck with the waiting for that trans-pacific shipping again, possibly being unable to enjoy or properly test other items in your shipment.
As with the quality control issue, some of these vendors have warehouses in the US. That does shorten shipping times. And the only problem it solves are the shipping ones, as their support is still on the other side of the world.

Cost of shipping

The vendors I've found who have a reputation for reliability also tend not to provide free shipping. This can make a lot of difference. I regularly find that, once I've added in the cost of shipping, things I get from them cost at best a few percent less than they do from Amazon. In return for that, I'm getting a longer wait for shipping, and PayPal's customer support instead of Amazon's.
For instance, I was once asked for a better place to buy a Walkera products in the US, as the most popular US sellers were charging several hundred dollars more for a 700-class helicopter than Walkera's Asia-based web store, taking the price from five hundred some-odd dollars to seven hundred some-odd dollars. I went to both sites, added the helicopter to my cart, and checked the shipping costs to my home address. The store in the US charged $40 or so shipping. The Walkera web store charged $230. The end result was that this purchase - nearly $800 by the time it was all added up - was actually about $5 cheaper to buy from the US.
If you have to return something - which is all to likely with the cheaper vendors - you may well have to pay for the return shipping. Even if they offer to pay you for shipping, they have asked me to pay the shipping first, and they'd refund it when they got the item. So - for that Walkera helicopter - I would have been out of pocket another $230 with a two month wait before I'd have a flyable helicopter. I might have gotten that $230 back, but I never intend to need to find out for sure.

The problem with PayPal

As mentioned, these vendors almost all use Paypal as their payment processors. While this may not sound like a bad thing, it's nowhere as good as a credit card company or Amazon.
The first thing to understand is that, unlike Amazon or a credit card company, you are not Paypal's customer. The company selling you things is the customer. You're the product. Paypal makes money by selling merchants the ability to sell to you, so their priority is to keep the merchants happy. So where Amazon covers return shipping when they or the merchants they represent screw up, Paypal's default policy is that you have to pay return shipping for the merchants mistake. So you may well get to cover those high trans-pacific shipping costs twice: once when you buy something, and again when you return it.
Paypal originally made money by earning interest on your money while they were holding it. This was so baked into their business that they paid over 9 million dollars to settle a class action lawsuit filed against them for being unwilling to let it go. It's still baked in, and there have been multiple lawsuits since. PayPal put a stop to that. They changed their user agreement so you give up your right to sue them (see Section 12.4).
On the other hand, you are your credit card companies customer, and they make money on you in a variety of ways. If you have a dispute with them, they (at least, every one I've ever dealt with) credit your card when you open the dispute. Paypal won't issue a credit until - well, they put it off as long as they can. Before the class action lawsuit, the only way to get them to cough up money was to have my bank reverse a charge - usually multiple times. Since then, I've gotten them to do so. But never with fewer than three calls to their so-called customer support, several emails from them that never arrive, and a representative of my bank on the line listening in when it finally happens.
Amazon isn't as good as a credit card company, but they're a lot better than Paypal. They provide a prepaid shipping label, and will refund your money when they get notification that it's been used, which at least happens automatically.

A warning about Amazon

Yes, I'm a fan of Amazon. However, they aren't without flaws. In particular, merchants can attach anything they want to a listing. So whereas someone can honestly list an item as authentic and original, someone else can attach their product to the listing even though they're selling an unlicensed clone or an out-and-out forgery. Arduino boards in particular are susceptible to this. In this case, you can safely use Amazon's return policy. I have no idea whether Paypal will behave similarly, and even if they do agree that it's Significantly Not As Described, you're still stuck with their return policy.
Similarly, it's not unusual to see one or more merchants selling a product whose listing says US ship whatever who are shipping from Asia. If you're an Amazon Prime member, buying Prime eligible items avoids this problem. Otherwise, always check the seller's shipping information.

Who to buy from

Hobby King has usually been reliable for me. They have a US warehouse. I'm not sure if they test beforehand, though. The downside is that they tend to only carry the most popular items of anything that's not a house brand. myrcmart tests before they ship, but doesnt have a US warehouse. I've become particularly fond of miracle-mart, since they accept credit cards directly as well as PayPal, and have free shipping on orders of US$50.