When things shouldn’t scale well

Curse of the Expanding Lab
My lab here at Moon River Software has started getting large enough that I needed to invest in some KVM switches. A small 4 port KVM wasn’t going to cut it, so I needed at least 8, possibly more. In addition, I needed to interface with both USB and PS2 connections, as some of my machines are older Unix systems and don’t support USB. While the newer ones all support PS2, I didn’t want to be restricted in the type of mice and keyboards I could buy. Some systems require special keyboard types, like my Solaris machines which have the ‘Stop’ key.

A Great KVM Switch to the Rescue
So, I purchased a pair of CS1758KIT KVM switches. They’re pretty nice. Not terribly expensive, they come with all 8 sets of bonded cables, support both USB and PS2, not to mention audio. You can also chain them up to three levels deep and access any machine from the on screen display, rather than requiring that you know which buttons to push on all your KVM switches, which might not be next to one another anyway.

Minor Problem
Now, I mentioned that it’s both USB and PS2 compatible and comes with all 8 cables. Guess what? They’re all USB. Not a single PS2 cable ships with this. So, I called up Provantage, which is the company that I ordered the cables from to ask after I received the first one. (The second was delayed while it was shipped from a different warehouse) I was informed that it was a boxed deal and they had no control over what was in the box, they just sold it. Interesting. The first one I received was completely opened up and had eight sets of cables just thrown in with the packaging. It seemed odd to both of us, so she promised she’d look into it and email me back what she found, as she felt it should have come with 4 USB and 4 PS2 cables as well.

A few days later, I received the second one. Lo and behold, it was completely packaged into a full kit, just as it should have been and the way the customer service rep explained that it should have been packaged. But still no response from them.

Just Buy A Few And Be Done With It
“Well, fine.” I thought. I’d just go online and order a couple more cables. How expensive could they possibly be? I only needed perhaps 2-3 PS2 cables. I’m not a big fan of wasting a whole lot of time to save myself $20 wasting my time talking to customer service reps who aren’t very helpful to begin with. That time would be better spent working on billable client work.

The Shocker
You want how much for these cables? It turns out that these cables aren’t cheap. Not only aren’t they cheap, but the prices for them are all over the map. For the exact same cable and part number, I found prices ranging anywhere from about $18 each all the way to $95 each. I can’t imagine they sell many at $95 bucks a pop, but it is what it is.

Ordering The Replacements
Being the same part number, I decide to go to the low end and just order a few of them. I check Froogle, place an order for the lowest priced cables, and go from there. It seemed odd to me that the 10 foot cables from shop.com were about $15 cheaper than the 6 foot cables, so when I completed my order and it requested feedback, I informed them that it was odd and I think they priced the 6 foot cables wrong. Imagine my surprise when a day later, I get an email telling me they “encountered an error processing my order” and have canceled it. A quick phone call to customer service, and I’m told there was a pricing error. But they did thank me for my feedback in an earlier email. I suppose it’s my own fault.

Back At Square One
So, back to Froogle and Provantage pops up in Froogle as having a relatively low price. It’s not the lowest, but I’ve spent about $5,000 with them so far, and they’ve been pretty reliable and trustworthy. When ordering equipment online, that’s important so I go to place my order with them.

Scalability Problems
When writing software, you want things to scale well. That means in terms of performance, as the number of items you’re working with goes up, you want the overhead associated with working with those items to remain low, so as not to waste too much time or too many resources doing the work. When shipping products from online retailers, you typically take a hit for the initial shipping costs, but as you add items the cost of shipping two items isn’t twice that of shipping one. And shipping three items is lower than three times the cost of shipping one item.

Not All Companies Shipping Departments Are Created Equal
I think we all know when we’re being scammed. If you order equipment using listings from websites like pricewatch.com, you know what I’m talking about. Some companies will throw out a ridiculously low number for the price of an item, but that price will only be given if you order one. Then they whack you with a ‘handling’ charge to help them make it up on the back end. And if you buy more than one, that handling charge is incremented by each one you buy. By the time you’ve bought a couple of them, you’ve paid more per unit than if you bought it somewhere else at a higher price due to the shipping and handling charges.

Provantage Is No Different
Go ahead and try this. I’ll wait. Pop on over to their site, add the part number G2L5303P to your cart and check the shipping costs. As of this writing, buying one of these will cost you $18.95, plus another $7.15 for shipping. The shipping for a single cable of this size is pretty outrageous, don’t you think? It’s less than a pound, and I know it’s pretty cheap to ship those things. But whatever. If it’s necessary, then why quibble over a couple dollars, right?

Experiment Time
Instead of buying one of these cables, lets try and buy 1000 of them. Usually, you’d get some sort of volume discount on cables. Not here. Add 1000 of these cables to your cart and it’s going to cost you $18,950 for the cables. Ok, no volume discount. But what about their scaling for the shipping costs.

The Scaling Problem
To ship 1,000 cables to you, it’s going to cost you $6,749 in shipping costs, which is about a third of the total cost of the items in question. Somewhere between 1 cable and 10 cables, they lower the shipping costs, and somewhere between 100 cables and 1000 cables, they raise the shipping costs.

Exploiting Flaws In The System
I realize that every system has its flaws. That’s why we have viruses, malware, adware, and all sorts of other nasty computer stuff. As an example, the elevator in my building doesn’t function correctly if you hit more than three buttons for the floors you need to stop at. If three of the buttons are lit up and you hit a fourth, the others are canceled and the elevator will go to the one that was most recently hit. It’s great for getting to your floor quickly when other people are on the elevator, but you don’t make many friends that way.

The pricing on this shipping isn’t really any different. It’s screwed up and they know it’s screwed up. I called and tried to place my order over the phone and when I was quoted a shipping price, it was higher than on the website! I noted this to the sales rep, she checked a few things and tried to give me the same price as the website. I told her it was unacceptable to pay that much for shipping. She agreed but said there was nothing she could do about it.

Hello! I’m A Decent Repeat Customer!
I’ve spent around $5,000 with you in the past 4 months. The least you could do is do away with some shipping charges that you yourself agree are outrageous. Nope. Apparently their sales team isn’t empowered to do anything with pricing. They take orders. They don’t make sales. So, I said thanks anyway and hung up. At that point, it wasn’t about the money. It was about the principle of the thing. I’d rather give my money to someone who’s going to appreciate it, rather than not give a rats ass about me or my business.

Enter An Equivalent Replacement
Through a bit of online searching, I found that there’s an equivalent replacement for the cable from IoGear because they make a similar/exact replica of the KVM that I bought and their cables are apparently compatible. I order a LOT of my equipment from NewEgg.com. They’re fast, they’re reliable, and they have a wide selection. Also, their RMA process is entirely online and is easy as eating cake to use.

Shipping for three of these cables was only about $9, and the price of the cable itself was a dollar less per cable. *cha-ching*!

If You Think You’re Getting Screwed…
whether it’s business or pleasure, then you probably are. And if it’s business, then it’s not nearly as much fun for you as it is for them. Look around and find a better deal. High pressure sales tactics are also crap. If anyone in sales ever tells you that they’re going to throw all this other free stuff in if you “buy now”, but if you get up from the table and walk away you won’t get it, then just show him the bird, and walk away.

The reason they don’t want you to get up and go anywhere else is because if they can get you to sign on the dotted line, you don’t have a chance to compare prices or talk to anyone else to get confirmation about whether you’re getting a good deal or not. That’s what’s so great about buying things online. It’s so incredibly easy to get pricing comparisons of other retailers.

If you’re about to pay $95 for a $17 cable, you can learn that before your credit card is charged. This makes it difficult for online retailers to sell their ‘customer service’ to people and charge higher prices. Although I have to say that NewEgg’s customer service is top notch. Any problems I’ve ever had, they take care of immediately. I’m willing to pay just a little bit more for something to order from them than to order from an unknown at this point.

So when buying things online, always check your shipping costs. If you’re not careful, you could be getting screwed and you wouldn’t know, or even enjoy it.


  1. Chris Hynes on January 19, 2007 at 4:12 pm

    The place to get cables and other related stuff, hands down, is Deep Surplus (http://www.deepsurplus.com). I’ve used them repeatedly to get quality cables, bulk cable, patch panels, etc. very cheap. They have a 6ft PS/2 cable for $1.25 a pop, $1.14 if you’re buying more than 10, and $0.85 if you’re buying more than 100. They’re also very reasonable on shipping, charging only the UPS fees. I highly recommend them.

  2. Mike Taber on January 19, 2007 at 6:20 pm

    Thanks for the comment Chris. I’ve used that site before, and I agree that not only are their prices great, I’ve never had any problems or felt like they were trying to screw you on shipping. The part I needed was G2L5302P, which they don’t carry. In fact, not many companies do carry it, and the ones that have it seem like they’re overcharging.

    I placed my order with NewEgg on Tuesday, and I got the cable Thursday afternoon. I paid for ground shipping, so that’s a pretty damned good turnaround if you ask me.

  3. Chris Hynes on January 22, 2007 at 2:54 pm

    That’s one of the things I love about newegg… They’re faaaaast. Even with ground shipping, they deliver within a day or two. I believe they have warehouses around the country, and they usually ship same day, so it doesn’t take long. Amazon used to be like that with their free shipping, but it seems like they are now adding an artificial delay, or moving priority to the bottom of the stack to encourage people to pay for more expensive shipping.

  4. Dave Sailer on March 21, 2007 at 9:33 pm

    I used Provantage since way back before it went by that name. Ordered maybe $3000 worth over the years, and then didn’t get an item. I went around in email circles with customer support for a week, then finally called. No good. I was polite and all of that, but they decided that I was not worth their time, put me on hold, then somone quietly lifted and lowered the receiver, ending my call. That was my last order to them, ever. Like everyone else here, I now use NewEgg. I will never buy from Provantage again. How’s that for a 15-year customer relationship?

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