When is free shipping really important?

amazon-shipping-robot.jpgI was reading Get Elastic’s posts on How to Plug Free Shipping and Yes, Virginia there is a Santa Claus and He Searches for Free Shipping where they’re discussing search engine strategies for free shipping offers. Linda points out:

“Free shipping offers consistently top surveys of what customers want from online stores. And people do search for “free shipping,” and most often in November / December – as you would expect.”

The question came up in my mind: are all these people who want free shipping just cheap, or is there another concern lurking in the back of their mind? Are there specific products that free shipping is really important for, and others when it doesn’t matter so much?

In some cases (with certain products), there are concerns that free shipping quells immediately (if you make sure the user KNOWS you offer free shipping on that item). If you offer products like clothing or shoes or furniture, items that may cause your customers to wonder:

  • Will it fit?
  • Will it look good on me?
  • Will it be comfortable?
  • How will it look in that room?

These kinds of issues aren’t as big an issue when the customer is in a retail store and they can try it on, sit on it or measure it, but when you’re buying it online, it’s a bigger concern because you don’t get that hands-on experience.

That’s why Zappos’ policy of free shipping both ways works so well. Shoes are one of those things that most of us have GOT to try on before you know whether you really want them. And Zappos makes it very clear in both their site design and the copy on their site that you don’t have to worry about that when you shop at Zappos. 

There’s another type of concern with shipping: if an item is really big or heavy, the perception is that it’s going to cost more than it’s worth to have it shipped vs. buying it in a local store. So for furniture or heavy equipment, offering free shipping is a big boon to online conversion.

Free shipping is not as big a deal with seeds or flower bulbs, for example, because it’s not something you expect you might have to send back. You are going to plant it in the ground, so you clearly won’t be sending it back. You might be asking for a refund if it doesn’t grow, but there’s nothing to send back. It might be okay to pay a little for shipping, then, especially if it’s something special I can’t get at my local hardware store.

Some products I think would be important to offer free shipping on are:

  • Shoes, of course
  • Clothing, especially fitted clothing (not so much with items like t-shirts)

Free or low-cost shipping is also good for:

  • Furniture
  • Heavy equipment like lawnmowers, snowblowers, etc.

Free shipping is not as big of a deal with edible items, personal care products like lotions, perfumes, and soaps, office supplies, DVDs, CDs, etc. These things are the types of things where you know pretty much what you’re going to get and you expect to use it regardless. If it doesn’t taste as fantastic as they thought it would, well, they just won’t order it again.

Do watch what you’re charging for shipping, though, if you decide you’re going to charge for shipping, and make it clear up front what the shipping charges will be. If the user thinks they’ll be paying more for shipping than they’re paying for the item, or if the cost of shipping makes the item overpriced, in their mind, you’ll lose them. To get conversions, you’ve got to quell their fears, and too many of us have been tricked into buying an item that looked like a good deal, but with overpriced shipping on eBay (for example), it becomes not a good deal at all. People are suspicious of shipping charges, and rightly so.

I would just caution online retailers to put themselves in their customer’s shoes and consider the concerns and worries that are running through their minds as they shop. Then set your shipping prices at a fair price to help quell some of those fears.

Some online retailers like Zappos and Overstock.com have figured all this out, and are reaping the benefits.


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