should you join a free shipping club?Free shipping clubs -- which require members to pay money upfront to receive free shipping -- sound suspiciously like yet another scheme from online retailers to milk more money out shoppers, but SmartMoney.com says "not so fast:" Believe it or not these clubs can be good deals.

Barnes & Noble, Amazon.com, Overstock.com, Sears, SmartBargains.com and Walmart all offer some sort of free shipping club membership. The cost of membership can range from $79 per year at Amazon.com and Sears/Kmart to $10 per year at SmartBargains.com. Besides the free shipping, these sites claim to offer members deals that they wouldn't get otherwise.

Whether the membership is worth it, however, "depends on your buying habits," says SmartMoney. If you shop at a particular retailer a lot, then the membership fee will be more than made up for in free shipping and discounts. But again, you'd have to shop a lot.

I called on the most frugal shopper I know – my mother-in-law – and asked her what she thought of paying money in advance to get shipping and coupons at no extra charge. Her reply: "Honey, that's crazy? Save your money." After adding up the pluses and minuses, it seems to me that she's correct.

Pluses
  • Speedy delivery. If you need whatever you're buying quickly, joining one of these clubs will give you free one- or two-day shipping, which can easily cost more than $10 per item shipped. That can be worth it if you are a frequent buyer of individual items.
  • Good buys. Never turn your nose up at getting an extra-special deal.
Minuses
  • Not everything is free. Sears doesn't include heavy items like furniture that has to be delivered. Barnes & Noble and Amazon don't include items from third-party sellers and Overstock eliminates DVDs, CDs and other media from the deal.
  • Why choose delivery anyway? Unless you live way out in the sticks, at least half of these companies have brick-and-mortar stores that probably aren't too far away. If you're in a hurry, run over and pick up what you want.
  • You may not have to join the club. Free delivery is a ubiquitous benefit for most of these retailers especially if you spend more than $25 or $50.
Google first. For instance, Google "Overstock.com and coupon." Up will pop Overstock.com Coupon Page. As I'm writing this, there is one coupon for free shipping. If that doesn't work for you, try DealCatcher.com, which points out some of the best deals around, including lots of free shipping offers. Or you can check out FreeShipping.org for some shipping-specific advice.

The bottom line

Shipping is expensive, so if you are a frequent online shopper then joining a frequent-shipper club might make sense, but do the math and a little research before you open your wallet. Chances are, in this game, the real winners are the retailers.

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