Free Shipping ... for Some

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Though offers of free shipping are nothing new in direct marketing, in these lean economic times many merchants are testing how to attach conditions to those offers while still enticing consumers to shop.

"The biggest thing that consumers want is free shipping," said Lauren Freedman, president of the E-tailing Group, Chicago, an e-commerce consultancy.

However, the across-the-board offer of free shipping to all consumers on all purchases essentially disappeared about three years ago, she said.

The E-tailing Group tracks customer service performance, including shipping, in its annual Mystery Shopping Study, the results of which were released yesterday.

Of the 100 Web sites in Freedman's survey, only four offered free shipping on all products during the fourth quarter of 2004 while 48 offered conditional free shipping. In 2003, eight sites offered unconditional free shipping while 43 made the offer conditional.

If consumers are on the fence about ordering, free shipping can tip them over the edge, Freedman said.

The only companies that regularly don't offer free shipping are those such as Lands' End that have proprietary product, because "if you want Lands' End product, you want it," Freedman said.

This holiday season, L.L. Bean, which has a tradition of offering unconditional free shipping, made it conditional to some and unconditional to others. It mailed a catalog to existing customers with no offer of free shipping. A second catalog that went to prospects, however, offered free shipping with no minimum purchase required. Orders had to be placed by Dec. 22.

The prospecting catalog had fewer pages than the regular one and featured a larger page size and different photography.

Multichannel marketers use free-shipping offers to make the shopping experience more convenient., for example, has a new returns system called Express Exchange. Customers who bought something online -- then decided the color or size is wrong -- can exchange the item at no cost. Also, Old Navy will ship the replacement before it gets the returned item.

Brands with a strong catalog heritage such as Coldwater Creek and J. Crew offer free shipping on items that are not in stock when customers shop for them in a store, if they then order the item online or from a catalog.

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