This week, Neiman Marcus became the latest retailer to offer totally free shipping on all purchases made through its website. But this sort of shipping policy is the exception, rather than the rule: Most retail sites will require you to meet a minimum purchase threshold to get free shipping, only occasionally waiving it for limited-time promotions.
But if you're determined to duck the shipping charges, there are plenty of tricks of the trade that can help you do it. Here are some strategies to keep in your back pocket as the holiday shopping season approaches.
Online retail has a big downside for skilled negotiators: There are no retail associates to haggle with. But Luke Knowles of FreeShipping.org points out that many e-commerce sites now offer live customer service through a chat box, and this can be an avenue for getting shipping costs waived.1. Haggle for a Code
"If the website has a chat-with-customer-service feature, ask them if there's a way for you to get free shipping with your purchase," he says in an email. "Sometimes they will have access to promo codes that coupon sites like FreeShipping.org do not, and customer service is usually willing to give them up in order to make the sale. This once worked for me at Lands' End."
If you're on a site with a free-shipping threshold, you may find yourself in the seemingly paradoxical situation of needing to buy more to spend less. If shipping is $7.99 but you can throw in a $4 pair of socks to get to the cutoff, the math works out in your favor.2. Use "Filler Items"
This is especially effective on Amazon, which sells a whole range of small, ultra-cheap items, from screws to rulers to children's stickers. We've previously sung the praises of FillerItem.com, which lets you punch in how close you are to Amazon's $25 free-shipping cutoff and then shows you all the items that will get you there. Even if you throw away that 79-cent pack of pink Pittsburgh Pirates pencils, you still come out on top by avoiding the shipping charge on whatever you were actually buying.
Last year, I found a shirt I liked on Banana Republic's site, and decided to order it with an online-only 25-percent-off code. There was just one problem: With the code applied, my order fell short of the site's $50 free-shipping cutoff. So I added another shirt to my order that I thought I might like.3. Order More, Then Return It
When it arrived, I found that I wasn't crazy about the extra shirt, so I brought it to a local Banana Republic store and returned it for a full refund. My shipping discount, however, didn't go away. Obviously, this only works for retailers with a physical presence and which let you return online merchandise to the store. And some retailers may have fine print insisting that you can't do this. But it's a nice workaround if you don't mind taking a trip to the store.
In fact, being willing to make a trip to the store opens up all kinds of avenues for avoiding shipping charges. One option is free in-store pickup, which is offered by retailers including Walmart and REI. Instead of paying a shipping company to send the package to your doorstep, the retailer can just use its usual shipping capabilities to bring the item to one of its store locations, where you can pick it up at the customer service or layaway desk.4. Site-to-Store
Some might object that having to get in the car defeats the whole purpose of online shopping -- if you're going there anyway, why not just buy it the old-fashioned way? But site-to-store is useful if the product you're looking for isn't actually sold in stores, or isn't available at stores in your area. And it's also a good way to take advantage of online-only sales and coupons without having to pay for shipping.
I stumbled across this one by accident. The other day, I found a shirt I liked in a J.Crew store, but it wasn't available in my size. I was planning to go home and order it online, but a store associate said if I placed my order from the store, I could have the shipping charge waived. An associate dialed the retailer's mail-order line and I placed my order over the phone; the shirt arrived a few days later, and I wasn't charged the site's usual $9 shipping fee.5. Order in Store
Obviously this isn't an option at every retailer. But if you're shopping at a store and it doesn't have an item in the size or color that you desire, ask an associate what your options are.
6. Buy Somewhere Else and Price-Match
If you mainly like online shopping because of the price advantage, but don't want that advantage to chipped away by the cost of shipping, you might get the best of both worlds by taking advantage of the generous price-matching policies that have popped up in the last year.
Target will price-match Amazon, plus the websites of Walmart, Best Buy, and Toys R Us; Toys R Us matches a similar list of competitors; and Best Buy matches Amazon and a long list of dedicated e-commerce sites. Found a great price on a computer monitor on NewEgg.com, but don't want to pay to ship? Find it at Best Buy and you can get it at NewEgg's price, minus any shipping charges the website was planning on charging you.
You didn't exactly get free shipping, since nothing got shipped. But you did wind up getting online prices without having to pay shipping.
We highlighted these two services last winter. Amazon Prime is $79 a year and provides free two-day shipping on any Prime-eligible product on Amazon. ShopRunner provides the same free two-day shipping at a wide variety of retail sites, including Toys R Us, American Eagle and Radio Shack; it's $79 for an annual subscription or $8 monthly, and it also provides totally free returns.7. Amazon Prime or ShopRunner
Sure, it's not exactly "free" shipping if you have to pay a subscription fee for the privilege, but if you shop online enough, those fees will wind up paying for themselves. And keep in mind that both services offers 30-day free trials, which you can use and then cancel if you don't think they'll be worth the subscription fee.
Short of using one of these workarounds, your best bet is to just make you're in the loop when free shipping codes become available. Retailers will sometimes announce limited-time free-shipping promotions to their email subscribers and social media followers, so sign up as you see fit. If you're already at the checkout page and want to find a code, you can check sites like FreeShipping.org or RetailMeNot.8. Get in the Know
And if you stay in the game long enough, you'll start to notice patterns.
"Most non-permanent free shipping promotions are cyclical," says Knowles. "Learn the frequency of when the websites you like to shop at have free shipping promotions."
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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.