Why Free Shipping Is Never, Ever Going Away

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Free Shipping Day takes place on Wednesday, December 18, when hundreds of retailers offer free shipping, with no minimum purchase, guaranteed for delivery by Christmas Eve. But guess what? Essentially the same deal was available days ago, and will remain available for days to come.

This year’s version of Free Shipping Day is being celebrated on the Wednesday before Christmas. The manufactured event, which was born five years ago, typically takes places roughly a week before December 25, and it’s on this day in prior years that thousands of e-retailers have offered some form of free shipping on customer orders.

But because virtually every retailer offers some version of free shipping during the holiday season—92% said they do in one survey—the concept of Free Shipping Day as it was first created seems pretty unnecessary. To be included in 2013’s Free Shipping Day, the bar is raised a little higher. Participating retailers must provide totally free shipping, with no minimum purchase requirement, and they must guarantee purchases will arrive by December 24. Accordingly, the number of retailers participating in this year’s Free Shipping Day stood at 840 at a recent count, compared to 2,500+ retailers participating in 2011, back when a seller was considered a participant even if it provided free shipping only on orders of at least, say, $75.

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Even with the rule change regarding which merchants are included in Free Shipping Day, there are those who think the event is misleading, perhaps even “a hoax.” That’s how Brad Wilson, of BradsDeals.com, described Free Shipping Day in a list of holiday season predictions released in early October:

Free Shipping Day is a Hoax! When you look at Free Shipping Day 2012 to Free Shipping Day 2011, you will see the 6% decrease year-over-year. Brad predicts this continued decline as most retailers can fulfill online orders as late as December 23 while still offering free shipping.

Indeed, some of the retailers listed as Free Shipping Day participants offer free shipping, with no minimum purchase long after Free Shipping Day has passed. REI.com, for instance, states that it gives free shipping—even on skis, snowboards, and other oversize items—for orders placed by 10 a.m. PST on December 23, with no minimum purchase required. The Free Shipping Day site also lists Zappos and Nordstrom among the participants, which just seems plain silly; both sites offers totally free, no-minimum-purchase shipping year-round, and they currently promise that orders placed by the afternoon of December 23 will arrive by Christmas Eve. So the idea that consumers making purchases at these sites on December 18 are getting some kind of special deal in the form of free shipping is ridiculous.

What’s more, in some other cases there was no need to wait for December 18 to arrive in order to take advantage of free shipping promotions. Levi’s, for instance, is listed among the Free Shipping Day participants, but its current deal — 30% off site-wide and free shipping on all orders, no minimum purchase required — was available before December 18 (use coupon code LASTCHANCE30, available through December 18). Likewise, Cabela’s and Lacoste are among the other retailers that were already offering customers free, no-minimum purchase shipping before the arrival of Free Shipping Day.

Even so, it can be worthwhile to shop on Free Shipping Day. In the past, many retailers have combined free shipping with across-the-board sales, and together they can add up to substantial savings. Look for big sales and site-wide discounts along the lines of Cyber Monday to pop up on Wednesday.

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Also, if you’ve had your eye on a small purchase that hasn’t met the seller’s minimum-purchase threshold for free shipping, then Free Shipping Day could be a smart day to close the deal. Lord and Taylor normally offers free shipping on orders of at least $99, which Radio Shack requires a $25 purchase for free shipping minimum, but they’re both listed as Free Shipping Day participants—meaning that no such minimum purchase is required for free shipping on December 18. (CORRECTION: Radio Shack still has a $25 minimum purchase requirement in order to qualify for free two-day shipping, even on Free Shipping Day.)

Granted, there are other ways around the minimum purchase requirement. One of the retail season’s biggest trends is the spread of shipping that’s not only free, but fast. Amazon Prime members, who typically must pay a $79 annual fee, get free shipping guaranteed for delivery by December 24 on all orders placed by December 22 at midnight EST. ShopRunner, the speedy shipping competitor of Amazon Prime, has been offering its two-day shipping service for free for members who register an American Express card with the site. Among the dozens of retailers offering fast free shipping via ShopRunner are Radio Shack and Lord and Taylor.