The Time Has Come for Free Online Shipping – Again

The holidays are a time for giving. True enough. But why should it be the only time that e-tailers “give” shoppers free shipping?

It’s a gimmick, of course — a way to attract reluctant shoppers to the Web. Smart online merchants use free shipping to get those shoppers to buy and to do it early, easing the last-minute crunch and helping make the holidays truly happy, as far as the bottom line goes.

And it works, by all accounts. Shoppers dipping their toes into the water do cannonballs when they hear the offers.

They must. Otherwise, why would free shipping appear, right on cue, each November — like fake Christmas trees in Wal-Mart?

Just Do It

So if it works so well, why not do it all the time?

The answer has to do with margins and profits. The online merchant is in a bind here. An e-tailer has to attract shoppers to show that fourth quarter growth everyone expects. But it has to be donewithout giving away the farm.

During the holidays, things are busy enough that whatever portion of the profit margin shaved off by the free shipping can be spread so thin that it’s hardly noticeable.

Not true the rest of the year, though, right? Well, maybe. Barnesandnoble.com (Nasdaq: BNBN) seems to have done pretty well with its free shipping offer, which is now several months old.

Funny Memories

You’ll recall that Amazon started offering free shipping and then, just as abruptly, cancelled the deal two weeks later. Barnesandnoble.com, which had seen Amazon’s offer in the meantime, was left twisting in the wind.

To its credit, Barnesandnoble.com has stuck with the offer, forever calling it good for a “limited time” and only now saying it’s good “until the end of the year.”

The point, however, is that if free shipping can be made to work on a small scale for a few weeks, it should be doable all the time. Amazon said it yanked its free shipping because consumers didn’t like the trade-off of higher prices. But now it’s back with a “limited time” deal of its own.

At the same time, it’s become standard thinking that consumers are not online only for low prices, though in these times, especially, low prices are a big plus. Shoppers want what they want and what they most want is not to be hassled.

Not the Money

Paying for shipping itself is a hassle, but dealing with the shipping charge mystery is the real pain in the shopping bag.

There are a few visionary sites that help shoppers figure out shipping costs as they go along. But most make you wait until your shopping cart is loaded, your credit card sitting on your keyboard and every last detail of your personal history typed into the appropriate boxes before you can find out that the shipping charge is $4.95 for the US$10.95 paperback you just ordered.

Surprises like that don’t make lifetime customers. Free online shipping does. At least it would if it were given half a chance.

Shifting Tides

This might not apply to everything. Shipping a DVD player probably should cost a few bucks. But a trade paperback? Come on. Consumers know that e-tailers pad the shipping charges in the book aisle in order to keep shipping costs down in the electronics section. Otherwise, how could they compete with brick-and-mortar stores?

Well, maybe they can’t, not in every arena, not with every product on every shelf. There’s no shame in that. But it is a shame that shoppers buying books for the beach can’t get the same deal as their counterparts buying books for under the tree.

What do you think? Let’s talk about it.


Note: The opinions expressed by our columnists are their own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the E-Commerce Times or its management.


2 Comments

  • I recall ordering books through a catalog seller: Hamilton something or other.

    And the shipping fee was a flat $3.95 regardless of the total cost of the order. It took a

    while for the books to arrive, but I appreciated not feeling ripped off. Another thing that

    peeves me is when I’ll pay the same shipping and handling fee for a small pair of lightweight

    earrings as I would for a larger, heavier package, because the figure is calculated

    on the AM ount and not the weight. Something about that doesn’t seem right.

    And finally, I have ordered items from Barnes and Noble over Amazon strictly because

    the shipping was free. And if I had to order two items to take advantage of it, I would go

    ahead and add another book to it.

  • If I can’t easily and quickly locate the shipping charges before I put the goods in my basket then I don’t stay at that site.

    I’ll buy from the site with free shipping first anytime, but if they don’t happen to have the goods I want then my dollar goes to the site with the least expensive shipping fees.

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