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.
8 Tips and Tricks for Scoring Free Shipping
8 Tricks, Tips and Hacks for Snagging Free Shipping
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.
"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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."