Well, it often take a little discernment to tell.
Think these three issues through:
- Is there a minimum order involved? If so, watch out. Any minimum that requires you to spend more than you were planning is already a red flag. Say your budget was $30, shipping is $5, and the minimum for free shipping is $40. This is an example of a signal to reconsider whether the free shipping is worthwhile. Some stores take this to ridiculous lengths. Notorious offenders are J. Crew (Classic minimums in its email campaigns are $150, $175, and up. Please!), Macy's (often $100+), Nordstrom (often $200), Bloomingdales, Saks, and most upscale stores. If you're buying something from these retailers, consider going to the physical retail location to spend your money and be done with the operation sans free shipping minimums, instead of pondering whether you should buy a $60 cardigan for Great Aunt Myrtle to get to that minimum, trying to save yourself a $15 shipping charge.
- Does this store offer free shipping always/often? If so, odds are good that your shipping costs are built into the product price. Online shoe stores are usually good examples of this. Though the free shipping/free returns 24/7/365 business model is great for shoe-selling online, if you as the consumer have the ability to buy your desired shoes in the retail location, you'll probably get them for cheaper, even taking gas into account.
- Does the shipping offer require you to buy an item you wouldn't otherwise buy? For example: "Buy any regular price cashmere sweater, get free shipping!"...and the sweaters start at $70. Caveat emptor!
So when are free shipping deals worthwhile?A good example of a really worthwhile free shipping online purchase fulfills one or more of the following conditions:
- The free shipping is on any purchase. The fewer strings, the more flexibility for your transaction. 'Nuff said.
- The company rarely offers free shipping deals. As in: one, maybe twice a year.
- You have no retail location of the store within driving distance.
- Shipping charges are normally hefty (as in the case of heavier items like car seats).
- The free shipping deal coincides with a terrific sale. Take free shipping codes, so prevalent during the holiday season, which happen to expire after 12/25. Post-Christmas clearance + free shipping = potential steals. Even better when you're shopping with gift cards!
- The free shipping offer can be stacked with other offers. Sometimes the company defaults the whole site to ship everything free for a time, no code required. If you can find another coupon code (like at retailmenot.com), then you can score big! Other sites allow for more than one code to be entered, like a free shipping code and a %/$ off code (Victoria's Secret and Shutterfly are examples of such sites).
- The free shipping is in a transaction where your selected items are priced the same or cheaper than in retail locations. You have saved money on shipping and the time and headache of traveling to the retail location. Bingo!