In the post-recession shopping world where impulse buying has fallen by the wayside, retailers are doing their best to remove any obstacle that could make consumers think twice before opening their wallets.
So it is little wonder that free shipping deals are spreading this holiday season. As merchants head into the biggest shopping months of the year, waiving shipping fees lets them capture a piece of holiday budgets. Indeed, 85 percent of online retailers plan to offer free shipping at some point this holiday season, up from 79 percent last year, according to the National Retail Federation.
What's more, 36 percent say their budget for free shipping is higher than last holiday season, the New York-based retail trade group said.
"There's no reason to pay for shipping around the holidays," said Sucharita Mul puru, principal analyst at Forrester Research, a technology research firm.
Best Buy is among the latest to enter the free-shipping arena. The consumer electronics chain will offer free online shipping through Dec. 21 on hundreds of thousands of items.
Wal-Mart recently unveiled free shipping on its Web site with no minimum purchase on almost 60,000 items, including many toys and electronics. The offer, the first of its kind for the world's largest retailer, is slated to run through Dec. 21.
Most merchants are lowering the minimum purchase price to qualify for free shipping to $25 to $40, from last year's $50 minimum. Few have no minimum-purchase requirement.
"My belief is that we're going to continue the evolution to free shipping for everything at some point," said Kevin Strawbridge, president of online savings hub DealTaker.com, which tracks sales at 2,400 retailers nationwide.
Gap Inc. is one retailer that appears to agree. The specialty store chain disclosed in October that it plans to launch an everyday free-shipping option in 2011 across all its brands — Gap, Banana Republic, Old Navy and Athleta — for orders of at least $50. (Piperlime, Gap's online shoe division, already offers free shipping on all purchases.)
"The recession has accelerated the consumer deal-making behavior, whether it's discounts or coupons or free shipping," said Andrew Lipsman, director of industry analysis at comScore Inc., a digital-market research firm.
In each week of the November-December 2009 holiday season, 45 percent to 50 percent of e-commerce transactions included free shipping, according to comScore. That outpaced the 2008 season, when the figure ranged from 34 percent to 49 percent.
Shoppers usually spent more on each order when merchants waived shipping fees, the comScore survey showed.
Luke Knowles, founder of FreeShipping.org, is helping the movement by organizing a free-shipping day on Friday. Participating merchants guarantee delivery by Christmas Eve. Knowles estimates the number of retailers taking part this year will top 1,000, up from 750 last year and 250 in 2008, the event's first year.