Big-Name Booksellers Test Free Shipping

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Free shipping has become the latest sparring ground for rivals Inc. and Barnes & Inc.

This week, just as Amazon was about to wrap up its free-shipping offer for orders of at least two items, Barnes & chimed in with its own promotion. Both online booksellers claim they have the consumer on their minds.

"We feel that shipping can be somewhat confusing when you purchase online, and even though prices are disclosed on the Web site, I think there's some confusion about what the final shipping total is," said Marie Toulantis, the new president and chief operating officer at Barnes &, New York.

"So we thought this would be a great way to take the confusion out of the calculation, make it simple for consumers and offer them a good value," Toulantis said.

An Amazon spokesman echoed the sentiment.

"We did it as a two-week test [ending July 4] to see if it makes shopping simpler and if our customers like it," said Bill Curry, director of communications at Amazon, Seattle.

Barnes &'s offer kicked in July 2. Consumer or corporate orders of at least two items will be shipped free nationwide through standard ground delivery of three to six days. This covers books, CDs, videos, DVDs, digital books and magazines. Toulantis said there is no timeline for the offer, which she said might be permanent.

Domestic ground rates for shipments of single-item orders also have been slashed by $1. A book or video costs $3.48 to ship, and a CD, DVD or tape costs $1.98 for shipping.

Amazon had a free-shipping offer for two items and up, though it did not match Barnes &'s delivery to territories and noncontinental U.S. states. The Amazon offer kicked in June 20.

But what Amazon gives away with one hand, it takes with another. While the retailer introduced this free-shipping offer, it also raised prices on certain unspecified products.

"The prices are the same on New York Times best sellers -- 40 percent off," Curry said. "We also left a lot of prices alone, so the overwhelming majority are either the same or lower."

Essentially, Amazon and Barnes & are tinkering with the free-shipping model to see whether that is enough encouragement to bolster order volumes.

Barnes &'s free-shipping offer is a follow-up on a six-week, one-rate shipping offer of $4.48 per order that commenced in May.

Toulantis pointed out that this was the first time Barnes & was offering free shipping across its site. Earlier free-shipping offers were linked to specific products.

Both booksellers are struggling to meet Wall Street's profitability expectations, particularly Amazon. Add to that consumer-perceived obstacles associated with online buying.

According to a Jupiter Media Metrix survey released last month, shipping and handling charges have deterred 63 percent of consumers from completing an online transaction.

A Jupiter Consumer Survey conducted in April showed that 46 percent of surveyed consumers prefer that online retailers charge for shipping based on weight. Only 10 percent opted for shipping costs based on price and order size.

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