Is Free Shipping Really Worth It?

As competition among online retailers heats up, consumers have come to expect free shipping. In fact, Internet Retailer reports that 64 of the top 100 retailers in the Internet Retailer Top 500 Guide offer some sort of free shipping, which may include a minimum order amount or require the use of a promo code.

UPS and FedEx both increased the cost for standard ground shipping at the beginning of this year and USPS shipping rates will increase on January 27. What does this mean for online shoppers?

Although shipping prices are expected to rise almost five percent this year according to dealnews, few retailers will risk losing business by passing those extra costs directly onto consumers, say industry insiders.

“Free shipping is here to stay, and ultimately I think that’s a good thing for consumers,” says Mike Ketcham, general manager of the Indiana-based Dive Lights Direct. “However, if shipping costs increase for merchants, most etailers will continue to offer ‘free shipping’ but will be forced to pass those costs along to consumers in the form of higher product prices.” It’s also possible that the minimum threshold for shipping may increase from $25 to $50 or $60 to $75.

Despite its name, free shipping isn’t necessarily free. Retailers that offer free shipping sometimes build that cost into their product prices, as mentioned above. And those that require a minimum purchase of, say, $25 or $50 are hoping you’ll add extra items to your cart to reach the minimum purchase required rather than pay a few extra bucks for shipping.

Here are some questions to consider before placing your next online order:

  • Would I buy these extra items anyway?
    Don’t let a free shipping offer lure you into buying something you don’t need or won’t actually use. On sites like Amazon or, it’s easy to find basic household items like paper towels or hand soap to round out your order and save you a trip to Costco or Target but buying a pricier sweater or scarf from an apparel website may not be worth the extra expense. Sites like and can help identify items as close to the price you need as possible without going over, but again, consider whether you actually need those items.
  • Can I combine orders with others?
    If you have trusted friends or coworkers who order from the same websites, you might combine orders so neither of you has to order filler items. Or if a friend already pays for Amazon Prime, they might be able to place the order for you and you could reimburse them.
  • What type of shipping is offered for free?
    Also consider whether the free shipping is a cheap downgrade. “Etailers may also continue to offer free shipping but switch to less expensive shipping options,” warns Ketcham. “For example, services like USPS Parcel Post are less expensive than USPS Priority Mail, FedEx and UPS, but they are much slower, less reliable, and non-traceable. The danger for consumers is that it might not be readily apparent which shipping service a merchant is using as part of a free shipping offer, so customers should always double-check before they place an order.”

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