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"Please add pi dollars and 95 cents for shipping and handling." The inevitable footnote to any mail-order ad.

The shipping charge I can understand. The Postal Service, FedEx, UPS, DHL, Airborne Express, even the guy driving the proverbial turnip truck charge money to haul stuff from point A to point B. But what is this "handling" that is bundled along with the shipping?

Perhaps it's mundane. The Brit phrase, after all, is "postage and packing", which says (quite accurately) that the cardboard box and foam peanuts or bubble wrap cost money too, and you need to be charged something to defray that cost. But since this side of the Pond is full of conspiracy theories anyhow...what's going on at the mail-order house that we're paying for?

Especially in light of that other famous phrase, "Allow 4 to 6 weeks for delivery." Only two services ship that slowly, commercial freight, and USPS parcel post. Commercial freight I can understand -- it's not profitable for a trailer to roll until it's full of cargo, and it's relatively expensive, since anything that must be shipped by freight is invariably large and heavy. But parcel post? How expensive is it to ship a Veg-o-Matic parcel post? So the "shipping" part of "shipping and handling" isn't accounting for much in that case.

Again, I raise the question: what special handling does my Rotato or my 50 State Quarters map need that I need to be charged a couple of bucks for that privilege? I'd like to think that it's being handled with kid gloves, but what else could it be? How much does an official Mail-Order Item Handler get paid, and is it hazard pay? (Mustn't have any nasty accidents with the Ginsu knives...)

One has to wonder.

Handling is an elastic value, going to whatever the people shipping something to you want, as long as it is vaguely related to handling. Storage, rerouting, bringing parts in from the tulsa arm of the corporation, the entire year's salary of the mexican immigrant warehouse employees, and Ron Popeil's hair plugs could all be recieving money from your handling charge. It is the middle-man's fee -- everything that happens with your product that is not manufacture or marketing -- everything that gets your product to you is handling.

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