The 2013 Holiday Season’s Hottest Online Sales Trick

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As in most years, cheap prices and free shipping are key factors in getting consumers to bite when browsing online. But this holiday season, the hot trend among those pushing the envelope in e-commerce is shipping that’s not only free, but super fast.

About this time last year, free shipping offers were everywhere as the breadth of retailers apparently grasped just how important it was to extend free standard shipping—often, without a minimum purchase requirement—to close the deal with an online customer. For the 2013 holiday season, consumer demands for free shipping have only increased. According to one holiday survey, 85% of online consumers described free shipping as “important” or “very important” in determining whether or not they would buy. Free shipping was deemed more important to shoppers than the flexibility of a site’s return policies and even how easy the site is to use.

Retailers have been taking note of how much shoppers want free shipping. A holiday season report from Forrester Research indicated that 92% of the nation’s top 50 e-retailers offer free shipping in some form.

If there’s anything consumers love more than free shipping, it’s fast free shipping. And it’s this breed of shipping—orders arriving two days or less after purchase—that has become a hot battle ground during the current holiday shopping season.

(MORE: It’s Target Versus Amazon in the Battle for Moms)

The season’s free speedy shipping skirmishes were kicked off in October, when PayPal launched a promotion offering two-day shipping for free for anyone making purchases (via PayPal) with several popular retailers. The promotion represented an alternative to the two largest two-day shipping services, Amazon Prime and ShopRunner, which both boast free delivery at the cost of an annual membership fee (typically $79).

Amazon then raised its minimum purchase threshold for free shipping for non-Prime members from $25 to $35, thereby making a Prime membership seem more worth the money. ShopRunner followed by announcing a partnership with American Express that grants free membership (and therefore, free two-day shipping) to anyone who registers an AmEx card as their primary form of payment with ShopRunner.

Since ShopRunner works with more than 80 major retail sites, and since it’s a cinch to get a membership for free, it’s easier than ever to get free two-day shipping on most or all of one’s holiday purchases this season. That possibility, combined with subpar in-store sales tallies on Black Friday, prompted ShopRunner to circulate some quotes to the press that were simultaneously self-serving and true regarding the desires of consumers today.

“Instead of irritating their customers with yearly stampedes, smart retailers have learned that it’s better for long-term customer loyalty to offer the same deals online,” one of the quotes, credited to ShopRunner’s chief strategy officer Fiona Dias, reads. Another pointed out how lame plain old standard free shipping is in today’s e-retail scene: “Free shipping is an old story – everyone is offering free shipping now. The new game in town is fast, free shipping, and with no minimum order. Make it easy for customers, let them get exactly what they want when they want it.”

(MORE: PayPal Launches Digital Gift Store with Only One Client: Apple)

Among the other players waiving fast free shipping to woo shoppers are Sears and Kmart, which introduced complimentary two-day delivery as an enticement to sign up for a 90-day membership (also free) with its Shop Your Way MAX loyalty program, and MasterCard, which rolled out a new website where accountholders would be reimbursed for two-day shipping charges incurred from purchases at five major retailers, including Best Buy, QVC, and Walmart.

Then there’s eBay. Yes, it owns PayPal and was therefore involved in the season’s early promotion granting free two-day shipping. More recently, eBay launched the most astonishing fast and free shipping offer of all, giving free same-day shipping to customers in San Francisco making purchases with select local businesses. There’s a minimum purchase requirement ($25), and the promotional period is limited (through December 24), but we’re talking same-day delivery—and we’re talking totally free.