Combined p&p or not combined - a thorny question

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eBay has a policy regarding offering combined postage. But is this policy all that it promises to be?

Recently, and for the first time since I registered as an eBay member on 24 July 2003, I encountered this thorny question as you can judge from the feedback left for me on 11 September 2008, namely the question of what is combined p&p and what can be considered fair charges for p&p.

In the case I mention, I bid and won four items from this particular seller (I am not naming names as this is a general issue, I feel). After the auction, I sent him/her a query about the postage cost which turned out to be £13.50 for the four items, and whether s/he would be able to adjust p&p costs accordingly. His/her answer was unequivocal: "We do not offer combined p&p." To which I replied: "Fair enough."

I assumed that for some reason or other, s/he was not able to combine the four items I purchased into one parcel (some sellers may have packed items before the auction and so are unable to repackage them), and consequently was unable to offer a discount on p&p. And I was wrong. This seller did combine the four items into one parcel and sent me the items for the total cost of £6.40 - that is what the stamp said. Even if some extra cost for handling and packaging (which was £0 since s/he used pre-used packaging) was added, this is in effect a mark-up of more than 100% of the actual cost. I queried this again, s/he did not take kindly to my query, and so while my feedback was positive (the items were in good order) I mentioned excessive p&p.

If you are reading this, you probably wonder about what this business of combined p&p is all about. For once, eBay does not have much to contribute to the subject, except to say that if you do not agree with the p&p charges of a seller, do not bid.

Which may be sound advice in some circumstances, except after the event. There are always loopholes in a system and, as you can see, this is one in eBay policy, and it is understandable eBay does not address it because it is so difficult to regulate.

And here, you may well question my own practice: "Well, do you, as a seller, offer combined p&p?"
To which I have to reply: "No, not within the eBay parameters. For the simple reason that eBay's implementation of combined p&p is too rigid and leaves little space for adjustment. Even with combined p&p offered, I may well end up overcharging my buyer(s)."
And my second reply would be: "Yes, I do but not officially on eBay. If I can combine two items into one parcel, I am perfectly happy to send an invoice with the adjusted cost for p&p." Hence my asking buyers to ask for an invoice before paying.

So, at the end of the day, charges for p&p, combined or not, are at the discretion of the seller. So, it's worth to read the small print about postage before bidding. If there is no small print in the description alluding to the seller's p&p, resort to "Ask the seller a question".

So, what is combined postage?
This is a tricky question. As far as I can see from examples on eBay, it involves a discount for p&p charges for multiple items purchased from the same seller, at the discretion of the seller. However, if we consider the meaning of the word, we have to conclude that we are talking about multiple items being bundled into one parcel, i.e. combined = joined together (from the Latin com-binare - join two together)

And so it is not surprising that this is a bone of contention. However, there are a number of things you as a buyer can do when combined p&p is not offered by a seller:

1. Ask whether the seller would consider combined p&p for the multiple items you are about to purchase from her/him.

2. If the seller doesn't consider this option, ask whether the items will be sent separately - remember there may be reasons for sending items individually. If the seller replies in the affirmative, you have no grounds to query further. If the seller's response is ambiguous, query this again.

3. If the sellers response is unsatisfactory and therefore you really feel the p&p charged for these multiple items are unfair, there is no law in the world that can prevent you from annulling the purchase.

At the end of the day, sellers can no longer leave negative feedback for buyers. So, you as the buyer have nothing to lose. Having said this, be fair to the seller; don't leave negative feedback as a retribution for a sale that was annulled by yourself.

Now, if you are a seller, you are not powerless either, and there are a number of safety valves you can implement:

1. In the description, indicate the weight of the parcel (and possibly its dimensions) and the carrier you are using. (Most sellers do, and that is good practice).

2. In your description, indicate the reason why you are not offering combined p&p. You may have packaged the items in advance, or items may be bulky or not suitable to send in one dispatch.

3. If you are unsure of the actual cost for p&p, indicate your p&p charges are an estimate and offer to reimburse the difference between actual cost (including the packaging cost) and the cost you estimated. For private sellers, it can be difficult to give an exact quote in the description, and this is one way of handling this issue.

4. Do not combine several items into one parcel to save on postage cost so you can pocket the difference. This will smack of dishonesty, no matter what you may bring forth as the reason for doing so. At the end of the day, buyers can leave negative feedback just for this one reason. I didn't on 11 September 2008 but I should have.

At the end of the day, this is the first time I encountered this problem, and I don't expect to come across this situation again in the near future. As a seller, I always welcome questions and I am happy to reply. If you find my little dissertation useful, please let me know.
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