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Dropshipping: Why those online deals are usually too good to be true

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When Sean Virsunen of Collingwood, Ont., was looking for an aquarium heater recently, he did what a lot of Canadians do: He shopped around online to find the best price.

He eventually found the item he thought would suit his needs on Walmart.ca for a great price — $15.97 Cdn. “I knew it was going to be something really cheap,” he says, “but I thought it could be worth it.”

A few weeks later, the item had yet to arrive, so Virsunen sent off an email to Walmart.ca to inquire about the delay. 

“Their response, in a nutshell, was that it was sold by a third party, we have nothing to do with this, you need to contact them,” Virtsunen recalls.

That was surprising to him, since he had ordered the item on Walmart.ca and didn’t notice anything about the product not actually coming from them. But sure enough, when a package arrived some time later, it was from a company called Zest Mall Inc.

Dropshipping started as a way for retailers to supplement their own offerings online, but has devolved into online businesses with no products of their own selling straight from manufacturers. (Aleksey Novikov/Shutterstock)

It looked vaguely like the product he had ordered, but it came with foreign writing on the box. It also had European-style electric plugs, so it was wired to work on a 220-volt system — not the 120-volt system used throughout North America.

Virsunen contacted the company to complain, and after receiving numerous emails offering him a discount on his next purchase, he grew frustrated and insisted on a full refund. The company said it would do that if he could ship the item to an address in California — something that would have cost more than twice what he paid for it in the first place.

He complained to Walmart again, and they eventually said they would refund his money if he returned the item to a store. 

“We expect our sellers to honour their return policies,” Walmart Canada told CBC in an email. “However if a customer is not able to receive a refund that is allowed under the policy, they can escalate their refund request to Walmart.”

While Virsunen thinks he will eventually get his money back, the experience was an eye-opening one for him, and his first foray into the murky world of something called “dropshipping.”

Representatives of Zest Mall Inc. did not respond to multiple CBC requests for comment. But their business has the hallmarks of a practice where third-party companies known as dropshippers sell products to consumers directly from the manufacturer, without the need for a physical store of their own.

A murky world of retail

Traditional retailers sell products to domestic consumers that are often made by foreign manufacturers. Retailers make money by marking up the price to cover their costs — rent for the store, salary for employees, warehouses to store the stuff and the technology to process payments.

In dropshipping arrangements, goods go directly from the manufacturer to the consumer without the added costs of the retail side. (CBC)

Dropshipping cuts all of those costs down drastically, because it circumvents or outsources most of those tasks. The dropshipper sets up a web store that’s often little more than a photo catalogue of available items, and ships the item directly to the customer from the factory.

In some cases, dropshippers don’t even have their own web store, selling their wares on the web portals of established retailers like Walmart, Amazon or Home Depot.

Payment processing is usually handled by an outside party, too. Canadian tech company Shopify is a big booster of the practice, via its app called Oberlo. Shopify says 85 million products have been sold through Oberlo. 

It didn’t used to be that way.

“In the past, retailers would engage in a dropshipping arrangement for purely logistical purposes,” says Mark Cohen, the former head of Sears Canada, who now teaches business at Columbia University in New York.

In Cohen’s day, a brick-and-mortar retailer like Sears would partner with a foreign supplier to dropship “large bulky products it didn’t want to stock on its own shelves that it could more efficiently simply arrange to have shipped directly from point of origin.” It worked well for big-ticket items like appliances, many of which are made outside North America to begin with.

But the rise of online shopping has turned dropshipping into something quite different, as consumers demand better deals and expanding selection.

“Consumers don’t care where the goods are coming from,” Cohen says. “They see it, they want it, they buy it, they expect to get it.”

More and more, that suspiciously cheap item online is coming to a consumer from a dropshipper “without the retailer they engaged having anything to do with the handling of it,” Cohen says. “And they don’t really care as long as everything is as promised.”

‘Selling really cheap stuff’

Problems arise when it isn’t.

A worker assembles ornaments at factory Xitanon village in the outskirts of Wenzhou, China. Dropshipping allows online stores to sell imported products at deeply discounted prices because they ship directly from foreign manufacturers. (Qilai Shen/Bloomberg)

Andrew Youderian runs an ecommerce consultancy and community called eCommerceFuel, but between 2008 and 2016, he ran several dropshipping businesses that collectively netted more than $1 million in annual sales.

Back in his day, he says dropshipping was a viable business plan for real-world entrepreneurs who wanted to offer more products without having to take on the risk of adding expensive inventory that has to be stored, and may not sell quickly.

“Six or seven years ago,” he says, dropshippers like him “worked with reputable suppliers and legitimate businesses.”

Now, he says a lot of the industry has just devolved to mean “people selling really cheap stuff directly from the factory to consumers.”

Amazon’s journey to becoming an online colossus played a big part in the evolution of dropshipping, first by making it harder for their real-world competitors to sell stuff themselves online, and now by working closely with third-party sellers. Some of them are legitimate retailers, but many are just dropshippers with no products or stores of their own.

As Virsunen puts it, “[Amazon] used to compete with them, but now they’re letting them on their platform.”

“If your whole strategy is trying to resell someone else’s products … it’s really hard to out-hustle Amazon,” Youderian says, which is part of why he got out of the business entirely.

But not everyone thinks the same way. One of the ways that dropshippers now get noticed is by advertising on social media feeds to try and nab bargain-hungry browsers. Once you click buy, you’re bombarded by even more ads for products, since dropshippers know you’re open to buying them.

Consumer-focused chat forums are replete with countless stories of consumers angry about being sold shoddy merchandise based on ads targeting them in their social media feeds.

“A bogus manufacturer creates a picture and body copy describing this wonderful product they’re going to make available for an incredibly low price, and the consumer opts to buy it,” is how Cohen describes the process. “Then, when they get [the item], they get a package full of sawdust.”

“They complain and discover the retailer that sold them the box of rocks is gone,” he says, “doing business under a different name.” 

In the past, consumers trusted that retailers were screening the items they were selling, Cohen says. “If they viewed the product as shoddy or substandard or not living up to its claims, they would typically reject it.” 

Prices that are too good to be true are a hallmark of the dropshipping process, as items often take a long time to arrive, are of suspect quality and are very hard to return. (Pete Evans/CBC)

That’s not happening as much any more, which is why Virsunen says he feels duped. 

“It’s kind of false advertising,” Virsunen says of his experience. He says he’s unlikely to buy on Walmart’s Canadian website again, despite the fact that Walmart said they will give him his money back.

“I ordered something off a Canadian website, I was expecting something that would at least work in Canada,” he says. “Who are these people [and] how are they allowed to just willy-nilly sell stuff?”

In an email to CBC News, Walmart said all third-party sellers it works with are “carefully vetted and reviewed before being invited to join Walmart’s marketplace community to ensure our customers receive the quality and service they deserve.”

But Zest Mall’s page on Walmart’s official marketplace sellers list is littered with poor reviews that are reminiscent of Virsunen’s experience.

Walmart says it makes it very clear on its website if any available product is being sold by a third party, as such items will have a “sold and shipped by” line next to their products. Walmart adds that customers can return any item from a third party to a Walmart store, “subject to the return policy of the marketplace seller.”

Virsunen says that’s not good enough.

Cohen says bad experiences with suspicious-looking deals online are a good reminder of the age-old retail advice: buyer beware.

“It’s like caveat emptor on steroids,” he says. “You took your chances, it seemed too good to be true and it was too good to be true.”

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5 ways to pay off a loan faster

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Gaining access to a loan has gotten easier and easier, but borrowers must still navigate a system that offers both good and bad loans. With so many options and hidden clauses, finding the right strategy for paying off a loan faster can seem complicated. But it doesn’t have to be. Borrowers can still achieve financial freedom quickly while remaining Zen.

Here are five ways to pay off a loan faster:

1. Increasing the monthly payment

Yes, this is an obvious strategy and might seem difficult to do at first glance. However, you’d be surprised at what you can really do when you use a loan payment calculator to determine how much you’ll save on interest payments if the loan is closed ahead of schedule.

Before calculating the amount to increase the monthly payment, borrowers need to contact their bank to find out:

  • how early repayment takes place;
  • what hidden fees and penalties exist for early repayment;
  • whether it is necessary to write an application;
  • when the payments can be made.

All these factors can significantly affect the final amount due. Often, the contract contains hidden payments and sanctions for early full or partial repayment of the loan. It is less profitable for a bank to allow their client to close a loan or credit account ahead of time. For this reason, many companies resort to all sorts of tricks to prevent clients from paying off their loans early.

2. Finding an additional source of income

Another perhaps overlooked approach to paying off a loan is to simply increase your income. Some options for doing this might include

  • getting a part-time job;
  • working additional shifts;
  • looking for temporary seasonal openings;
  • engaging in a one-time project;
  • selling unnecessary or unused household items.

Whatever the activity, it does not have to be related to the borrower’s main profile and specialization. In spring and summer, unskilled workers are constantly required for cleaning summer cottages, harvesting crops, or pruning bushes. In the winter, it can be tutoring, cleaning apartments, construction and repair work, tailoring, and freelancing.

3. Minimizing expenses

Many borrowers find it impossible to pay off their loans without cutting costs.

So, it is a good idea to analyze your income and expenses, leaving room for only the essentials.

Borrowers need to be as honest as possible with themselves and clearly define what they can temporarily refuse in favor of quick loan repayment.

During this period, borrowers should avoid unnecessary expenses or online shopping, and develop a rational but economical meal plan.

Cutting costs should also include getting rid of expensive habits like alcohol, cigarettes, morning lattes on the way to work, lunch with employees in a cafe, or Friday evenings out with friends. However, borrowers should have in mind that these are only temporary harsh measures to shorten the loan term that will help them get out of debt.

4. Rounding up the Payments

Rounding up the payments is an interesting strategy to reduce the time it will take to pay off the loan. For example, a borrower owing $425 a month can decide to be paying $500 a month. This little commitment adds up to an extra 75$ in repayment every month. Over time, that adds up to a significant amount, saving interest payments and getting the borrowers out of debt ahead of schedule.

5. Speeding up the loan repayment

Another clever strategy is to make a bi-weekly payment rather than just one monthly payment. Which is better: paying $1000 per month or $500 every two weeks? The second strategy wins.

To really speed up the loan repayment, borrowers could divide their monthly payment in half and pay that amount every two weeks. This means making 26 half-payments in one year, which is the equivalent of a whole additional monthly payment. This 13th payment is called the accelerator. It allows borrowers to pay off their loans faster.

The bottom line

Paying off the loan faster decreases the overall term of the loan and helps borrowers get out of debt ahead of schedule.

In addition to adopting the strategies above, borrowers may be able to help themselves by adopting good financial habits that will stay with them for the rest of their lives.

Borrowers who spend less than what they earn can reduce their debt and even start saving for other projects. They can do this by revising their monthly budget. This allows them to control their game plan and quickly see where they need to adjust.

These good habits will not only help people take control of their debt, but also take control of their general finances.

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Future of Ottawa: Coffee with Francis Bueckert

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Francis Bueckert: When it comes to the current landscape of coffee-roasting companies and independent cafes in Ottawa, I think we are at a really interesting moment in time. There are more local roasters that are doing artisanal small-batch production—with more attention to the quality and origin of the beans.

With larger corporations such as Starbucks closing locations, it has opened a bit of space for local players to grow. We have been lucky to work with many folks in the coffee-roasting community, and we have found that there is a willingness to collaborate among different coffee roasters. For example, when Cloudforest started back in 2014, we were roasting our coffee at Happy Goat and it was the expertise of their head roaster Hans that helped me learn how to roast. Other companies such as Brown Bag Coffee have also lent a hand when we needed extra roasting capacity. There are others, such as Lulo, Mighty Valley Coffee, Bluebarn, The Artery, and Little Victories that are also part of the growing local coffee community. It’s small roasters like these who have shown me what a coffee community can look like, and that we can help to elevate each other, rather than being locked in competition.

If you care to make a prediction… What’s happening to the local café industry in 2021?

We believe that there is hope and that 2021 can be a big pivot year for small roasters and cafes.

This year will not be ideal from a business point of view. However, it could create a shift in people’s attitude toward where they get their coffee. We are holding out hope that people will support the roasters and cafes that are local to help them economically survive what is in all reality a very difficult time.

It all depends on where consumers decide to go this year. People are starting to recognize that supporting large corporations at this moment will be at the cost of the local roasters and cafes. There is the growing realization that a future where there is only Amazon, Walmart, and Starbucks would be pretty bleak. So we have an opportunity this year to support the kind of local businesses that we want to see thrive.

In your wildest dreams, what will the landscape for local coffee roasters and cafés look like in your lifetime?

In my wildest dreams, all of the coffee roasters and cafés would be locally owned and independent. They would all be focused on direct trade and artisanal coffee. Each different coffee roaster and café would know exactly where their coffee came from. Ideally, each company would be a partnership between the farmers who grow the beans and the people here selling them. There would be a focus on how to cooperate and collaborate with the farmers in the countries of origin to share the benefits around. We would all work together and share orders of cups, lids, and other packaging so that we could get better bulk pricing. In this way, we would make our local coffee community so efficient that the large corporate coffee companies wouldn’t even be able to compete.

We would also like to see people use coffee as a way to create social good. For example, we started Cloudforest as a way of helping support farmers in Ecuador who were taking a stand against large mining companies. This remote community stood up to protect their environment, so that they could have clean drinking water and soil for the next generation. They started an organic coffee cooperative to help show that there are other models of development, and we are doing our part year after year to help support their vision. They have a vision of development that does not include mass deforestation and contamination, and organic coffee is a key (among others) to show that another way forward is possible.

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Special events in the Ottawa Valley dominate annual OVTA tourism awards

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The Ottawa Valley Tourist Association hopes that its annual tourism awards will provide a little sunshine during what is a dark time for local tourism operators because of the pandemic.

The Ottawa Valley Tourism Awards are presented annually by the Ottawa Valley Tourist Association (OVTA) to individuals, businesses, and events that recognize the importance of working together for the growth of the local tourism industry, as well as offering exceptional visitor experiences.

“After a year that saw a lot of businesses in the hospitality and tourism industry being challenged like never before, the annual Ottawa Valley Tourism Awards represent a bit of light on the horizon” said Chris Hinsperger, co-owner of the Bonnechere Caves.

The Ottawa Valley Tourist Association’s (OVTA) Awards Committee co-chairpersons, Meghan James and Chris Hinsperger, said they were very pleased with the recent nominations received, especially in the Special Events category. Submissions were received for The Farm to Fork Dinner Series at the Whitewater Inn; Light up the Valley; The Eganville Curling Clubs’ Rock the Rings; The Ontario Festival of Small Halls ; The Bonnechere Caves On-line Underground Concert Series; The Opeongo Nordic Ski Clubs’ Ski Loppet; The Tour de Bonnechere — Ghost de Tour 2020; and The Bonnechere Caves Rock ‘n Roll Parking Lot Picnic.

“During a time when communities were challenged, it is nice to see that people still made an effort to get together and celebrate, albeit under certain conditions. It just shows the creativity and resiliency of our tourism Community here in the valley” said Meghan James, director of sales at the Pembroke Best Western.

There are three Award categories: The Marilyn Alexander Tourism Champion Award, The Business of Distinction and The Special Event of the Year.

Hinsperger, is excited about this year’s awards.

“During this pandemic the hospitality and tourism industry was the first to be hit, was the hardest hit and will be the last of our industries to fully recover. As Valley entrepreneurs we owe it to ourselves, to our businesses and to our communities to be an active part of that recovery. Our livelihood and economic recovery depends on our efforts. And we will get back to welcoming people from all over the world to share a little bit of the place we are privileged to call home. This awards process leaves myself and others fully optimistic about our positive outcomes.”

Award winners will be announced at the Ottawa Valley Tourist Association’s virtual annual general meeting on Monday, May 31.

The OVTA is the destination marketing organization for the Upper Ottawa Valley and proudly represents more than 200 tourism businesses, comprised of attractions and outfitters, accommodation, food, beverage and retail establishments, artists and galleries, municipalities, as well as media and industry suppliers. The OVTA is supported by the County of Renfrew, Renfrew County municipalities and the City of Pembroke.

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