Online retailers know that their customers hate shipping costs -- in fact, one study by Forrester Research found that shipping charges are the No. 1 reason customers abandon their online shopping carts before finalizing a purchase. As such, many e-commerce sites offer ways to get your wares shipped for free, usually by hitting some kind of minimum purchase threshold.
Sometimes, though, that free-shipping threshold might be too high. While Amazon, for instance, sets a reasonable $25 threshold for its Super Saver-eligible goods, the Gap sites (Gap, Old Navy and Banana Republic) require $50 in purchases before they'll ship for free. Higher-end retailers like Coach set the cutoff as high as $150. And even if you do get free shipping, it usually applies to a ground-shipping option that could take several extra days.
So if you intend to do a lot of online gift shopping this holiday season and you like your shipping fast and free, you might want to look into ShopRunner and Amazon Prime.
Amazon Prime is well-known to frequent online shoppers: In addition to providing access to its library of streaming video, it offers free two-day shipping on millions of items and overnight shipping for $3.99. ShopRunner, meanwhile, is essentially Amazon Prime for the rest of the Internet: The subscription service offers free two-day shipping for 70 online retailers (and counting), including ToysRUs.com and NewEgg.com. And while it doesn't offer a cheap overnight shipping option, it does one-up Prime with free returns.
Finally, we should point out that if you've never used Amazon Prime or ShopRunner before, both services offer a 30-day free trial. If you find yourself liking either service, you can let it automatically roll over into a paid subscription at the end of the trial period. But if you don't think you'll be shopping heavily enough during 2013 to justify the subscription fee, you take advantage of free two-day shipping throughout the holiday season without paying a dime in subscription fees, then simply cancel before the end of the trial period.
Between Prime and Shoprunner you should have no problem getting free shipping on whatever you're looking to buy: Amazon's product selection is legendary, and ShopRunner has deals with a host of major toy, electronics and apparel merchants.
But if the dream gift you seek can't be found on either site, there are other tricks to getting free shipping for the holidays. You can hunt around for site-specific free shipping codes at sites like Dealio or RetailMeNot, or simply experiment with codes like "FREESHIP" at checkout and see what happens. You can also make a point of shopping on special occasions when free shipping is easier to come by. Cyber Monday is one such day: We're seeing a lot of retailers lowering or outright eliminating their free-shipping thresholds today. That will happen on an even grander scale on Free Shipping Day, which falls this year on Dec. 17 -- just in time for last-minute Christmas delivery.
Matt Brownell is the consumer and retail reporter for DailyFinance. You can reach him at Matt.Brownell@teamaol.com, and follow him on Twitter at @Brownellorama.