Shipping charges. As customers, we HATE paying for them, and we LOVE getting them free. In fact, our feelings about shipping charges are so strong that we highly overvalue free shipping. We’ll spend money we didn’t plan to spend on products we don’t need in order to avoid dumping cash into those awful shipping fees, even when that incremental spending is much more than the shipping charge.
So, free shipping promotions are a powerful tool for retailers. But, if we’re not careful, overuse of free shipping offers could lead us down a path where free shipping becomes more an expectation than an attractive benefit. At that point, we’ll be left with the huge costs of subsidized shipping without incremental sales to support those costs. And that ain’t a pretty equation.
That said, strategic use of free shipping incentives can lead to incremental sales and greater brand loyalty. We’re probably all familiar with the various “free shipping when you spend $X” offers that are out there, so let’s consider some of the more innovative strategies in use today for free shipping:
Free shipping as part of the business model
Zappos really uses free shipping on purchases and returns as a key component of their business model. They encourage people to order multiple sizes of the same pair of shoes and return those that didn’t fit (or those they just didn’t like, for that matter). Free shipping removes a key disadvantage Zappos has to physical retailers, and in fact even provides an advantage for customers who can try on shoes in the comfort of their own homes.
Zappos’ CEO Tony Hseih has said Zappos is a customer service company not an e-commerce retailer, and free shipping is a big part of their customer service strategy. He’s also said Zappos looks at customer service as a marketing expense, which I think is an interesting perspective that might help the cost make business sense.
But free shipping both way at all times is not a sustainable business strategy without trade-offs. Zappos is not the low price leader in their category by any means. Even with their higher prices, public filings from the recent Amazon acquisition of Zappos exposed their relatively low profits as a percentage of sales. Zappos has certainly built a powerful brand with a loyal following so it looks to me like they’ve made the trade-offs work, but theirs could be a tough model for others to follow. I’ll be curious to see if the model continues to work within the Amazon business model.
Speaking of which…
Free shipping as a loyalty program
Amazon Prime is one of the more brilliant loyalty program innovations to come along over the last several years. For an annual fee of $79, customers can get free 2-day shipping on many key items and free standard shipping on many more. Again, this is a case of a pure-play e-commerce retailer looking to mitigate one of its disadvantages to physical retail. Amazon sunk some money into this program by giving away a lot of free trials, but they’ve since hooked people in to the fee. A recent Piper Jaffray analysis estimates Amazon Prime’s membership at 2 million people and growing at 24% annually. And once you pay $79 to get free shipping, you’re going to make the most out of it. Piper Jaffray found member spend growing from $400 annually to $900 annually!
But this again is an expensive proposition that wouldn’t be sustainable for most businesses. The $79 will help to defray some of the free shipping costs, but as with most paid loyalty programs that I’ve studied, customers don’t renew their memberships unless they’re getting a positive return on their investments. And Amazon, as a general merchandiser, can provide customers with enough product choices that they can visualize making enough purchases to get their money back and then some. Specialty retailers may not be able to offer a similar program on their own; although, I keep thinking there might be an opportunity for some third party to aggregate a bunch of retailers into a program in a way that might work. (Maybe that’s a future post.)
Free shipping as a store traffic driver
The previous two examples were pure-play retailers using free shipping as a way to mitigate a major disadvantage they have to physical retailers. So how can multi-channel retailers leverage the advantages they have with their multiple channels? Free shipping to stores is one way. When I was at Borders, we offered unrestricted free shipping to our stores as a cross-channel strategy in order to leverage the selection and experience of Borders.com combined with the convenience of picking up the order in our stores. Originally, we thought it would appeal mostly to urban dwellers who didn’t want packages left on their doorsteps, but it turned out to be a hit all around for people who just didn’t want to pay for shipping. Wal-Mart does something similar with their Site-to-Store program. And Borders just took it a step further with their recently announced “in stock guarantee” for their stores that offers free shipping to home for customers if the Borders store is out-of-stock on the item the customer came in to purchase.
But businesses offering free shipping without purchase hurdles often depend on additional future purchases to make the offering profitable. For example, we ran a lot of analysis at Borders on the free shipping to stores offer. We determined we needed X% of people to buy $X more in-store when they picked up their orders for the offer to make financial sense. With the new offering, it appears Borders is counting on pulling some market share from Amazon with the promise of books available right now in their stores.
There can be little doubt that free shipping is a powerful offer, but we have to be careful how we wield it. Someone recently told me that effectiveness of fire lies in prudence and intention. Used in a positive manner, it can provide great warmth and light but when used in a negative manner it can cause great destruction. Since I like overly dramatic metaphors, I’m going to compare free shipping to fire. Let’s be careful out there.
What do you think? Should we be concerned about free shipping becoming an expectation? How do you use free shipping strategically?