Free shipping deals drive online sales this holiday season

Free shipping is no longer just a perk for online shoppers, but a driving force behind their decision to hit the “buy” button. SNEWS talks to key outdoor and fitness retailers for more insight.
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Free shipping was once a perk that online sellers offered to attract customers, but it’s now a key driver for e-commerce, and this year many sellers have expanded their free shipping deals.

“Without a doubt, free shipping has become a critical driver of e-commerce purchasing, with the majority of consumers indicating that they will abandon their shopping carts if they get to check-out and find that free shipping is not included,” comScore Chairman Gian Fulgoni said in a Dec. 8 report.

For the week ending Nov. 28, 55.1 percent of online orders were shipped for free, which was 9.6 percentage points higher than the corresponding week in 2009, according to comScore (www.comscore.com). And for the week ending Dec. 5, 51.4 percent of orders were shipped for free, which was 7.6 percent higher than the previous year.

Online sellers in the outdoor and fitness markets told SNEWS® that they have changed their policies as consumers have begun to pay more attention to shipping deals.

Some sellers, such as Mountain Gear in Spokane Valley, Wash., have realized that shipping is an important part of their marketing message, and they have simplified policies to speak more clearly to consumers.

“We went to free shipping on all orders over $59 this year to simplify our messaging,” said Paul Fish, owner of Mountain Gear (www.mountaingear.com). “It used to be free shipping on just regular price items, and you paid shipping on sale items.” According to Fish, the new policy has increased the value of Mountain Gear’s average order.

A year ago, Rock/Creek in Chattanooga, Tenn., lowered its threshold for free shipping from $75 to $49. Rock/Creek co-owner Dawson Wheeler said the shift has “made a positive difference” without placing a burden on the business. “Going down to $49 doesn’t really change a lot of our freight costs,” he said, adding that this is partly because the average ticket for Rock/Creek (www.rockcreek.com) and many other online sellers is actually between $100 and $140.

Wheeler also said that more online sellers see free shipping as a marketing tool and, “They’re using it as a call to action.”

Because free shipping has grabbed the attention of consumers, even some brick-and-mortar stores have tried to use it to spark sales. “We offered free delivery and assembly for local customers to try and make the pot sweeter for Black Friday weekend,” said Bob Lachniet, owner of Fitness4Home Superstore in Phoenix, Ariz. (www.fitness4homesuperstore.com). However, the results weren’t great.

“It didn’t seem to impact sales one way or the other,” said Lachniet. “I thought it might generate a lot more business.”

The story is much different for Fitness4Home’s online sales where free shipping is critical. “We offer free shipping on our e-commerce because every other fitness dealer I see on the Internet does it, and if we didn’t we wouldn’t get a sale,” said Lachniet.

Whether its treadmills or tents, free shipping will likely play an increasing role in online sales as the recession continues to put the squeeze on consumers.

Even though shoppers have just a few more days to buy this holiday season, they still need a “little motivation,” said Phil Rist, executive vice president of strategic initiatives for BIGresearch (www.bigresearch.com), in a Dec. 13 statement. “The economy will continue to play a role in holiday shoppers’ spending decisions,” he said, “with free shipping and value being of utmost importance.”

--Marcus Woolf

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