Wherein random things are delivered to our house, daily, from China

A few weeks ago I noticed an advert on A Softer World that looked like this:

Box Bot Banner

If there was ever an ad crafted to attract my attention, it was that: the “interesting” caught my eye, the “$1/Day” pulled me in, the tiny graphics sealed the deal.

So I clicked, and ended up at the Box Bot which describes itself like this:

Bobcat In A Box is an automated program (or a “bot”) that sends you lots of little packages, bought from eBay and other sites across the internet with free shipping. It buys you at least one package every day. You can give the bot instructions as to what sort of packages you want, for example to only buy beads or postcards or anime items, or you can have it buy completely random packages and let the bot surprise you!

Right. Up. My. Alley.

How could I not sign up?

So I did. In Catherine’s name, as she’s a art practice that can profit from a random scatterling of interesting ephemera. I specified the keywords “fabric, wool, knitting, fibre, postcards, flags.”

And, yesterday, the first package arrived. From China. Four pieces of fabric, nicely swaddled in cellophane wrap.

First Box Bot Delivery

How is this possible?” is the first question that comes to mind: it’s hard to conceive of what economic model allows the cost of the product, the labour to assemble and ship it, and the shipping costs to come to less than $1 and still leave room for profit. The Box Bot FAQ addresses this unsatisfyingly:

How do the merchants make money on $1 items with free shipping?

The short answer is that I don’t know. For many of the items, merchants are certainly selling at a loss. But there are lots of sellers, on eBay and other online platforms, who keep offering items for next to nothing with free shipping….so the bot will keep buying them! As most of the items are shipped from Asia, many of the merchants pay several dollars for “free shipping”. A good number of the items bought by the bot will have “Shipping: $5” or something similar printed on the custom form! Even though the cost to ship is several times the winning bid, merchants fulfill the order and ship the items the bot buys. Perhaps they have a discounted shipping deal that makes it worthwhile. It is something of a mystery as to why they offer the items for such low prices on eBay, as it is easy to set a reserve price or start the auction at a higher bid. Perhaps the merchants ship these small items to boost their feedback scores or hope that they will be bundled with other purchases.

So the “how” remains a mystery. But it works. And I can’t wait to see what comes next


vbj's picture
vbj on February 7, 2015 - 15:09 Permalink

How about an update on some of the highlights of this quotidian experience? (Just read your podcast piece and couldn't resist using quotidian. Use it whenever you can.)