Shop offline to save money, online to save the environment

These gas guzzlers are better for the planet than yours.
These gas guzzlers are better for the planet than yours.
Image: Reuters/Mike Blake
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Shopping on Amazon may actually end up costing more than at a brick-and-mortar store. A comparison of 30 items from Bed Bath & Beyond with ones from Amazon showed a 6.5% price hike on average for items bought online. But if it’s any consolation, online retailers are still ahead of physical stores when it comes to energy efficiency.

The Wall Street Journal reports that average prices at brick-and-mortar stores are dropping. In addition to the 6.5% price difference, Bed Bath & Beyond also frequently sends its shoppers 20% off coupons. That means a shopping trip to a physical Bed Bath & Beyond store could cost as much as 25% less than an identical purchase on Amazon.

What’s driving the discount? Some stores, like Best Buy, are introducing price match guarantees to compete with Amazon. BB&T, whose analysts conducted the survey at Bed Bath & Beyond, told the Wall Street Journal that the brick-and-mortar stores may be “sacrificing gross margin in order to drive top-line growth.” In other words, they want their customers back and are willing to slash prices to make it happen. Meanwhile, Amazon is paying sales tax to more states, which has cut into what remained of its pricing advantage.

But as journalist Tim De Chant points out on his blog Per Square Mile, brick-and-mortar is still an energy suck. It’s a common misconception that the fleets of UPS trucks Amazon uses must be bad for the environment, he writes. According to several studies, they’re actually better than fleets of personal vehicles required for shoppers to visit a store. Goods, after all, still need to be shipped from their warehouses of origin to a retail location. So the added transport time for online shopping is actually just the so-called “last mile”—the extra distance traveled beyond the retail route to get to the customer’s door. Since professional shipping companies are more efficient about their routes, customers end up consuming less energy when they buy online than when they drive to a store and back. And Amazon still beats the prices of other retailers about 91% of the time. So while it’s smart to do some comparison shopping before filling up an Amazon cart, there’s still good reason not to head to the store—especially if you don’t feel like putting on pants.