For holiday shoppers, free shipping has gone from perk to priority.

For holiday shoppers, free shipping has gone from perk to priority.

Shoppers don’t just like it; they increasingly expect it. So, at least for the holidays, online retailers are scaling back minimum purchases and other requirements that have accompanied free shipping offers of the past.

Nearly a third of online retailers plan to offer free shipping without conditions this holiday season, according to the National Retail Federation.

Many see no other choice, said Luke Knowles, founder of “If a competitor offers it, you have to do it,” Knowles said. “It’s the No. 1 promotion that shoppers respond to."

Indeed, 85 percent of shoppers prefer free shipping without conditions to other promotions, according to MarketLive Inc., an e-commerce-services company in Petaluma, Calif.

Policies have evolved. Several years ago, the typical promotion included a minimum purchase, perhaps $100, and a discount code provided by the retailer or found on coupon-code sites such as Then retailers started dispensing with the promotion code.

Chad White, research director at marketing-software company Responsys, said that, last year, many retailers started offering free shipping with no minimum purchase in mid-December.

This year, many offered no minimums on Cyber Monday, including J. Jill, J.C. Penney, Sportsman’s Guide, Eddie Bauer, Home Depot and Bass Pro Shops.

Best Buy expanded its free shipping this season to include no minimums on nearly every product through Jan. 2. “We see it as a way to delight our customers,” said Scott Durchslag, president of “We saw an increase in order value, too.”

Target introduced free shipping last year for all Redcard holders, and it’s now a year-round promotion. This season, it’s considering whether to expand the program to include free shipping on essentially all items from Dec. 12 to 19 for all customers, not just Redcard holders, said spokesman Eddie Baeb.

Still, free shipping is a perk that isn’t easy to offer if a retailer sells bulkier, heavier items. Free shipping costs a jewelry retailer a lot less to offer than it does an electronics retailer shipping 50-inch flat-screen TVs.

Durchslag said that, although free shipping can increase sales, for Best Buy it’s also an investment. “It’s a financial commitment, and we have to budget for it,” he said. “But if the customer has a great experience, they’re more likely to return.”

Surveys suggest that free shipping puts shoppers in a better mood, which might lead them to spend more. Where free shipping was offered last week, customers spent an average of $137 per order, according to the National Retail Federation. Without free shipping, the tab fell to $91.

Carol Miletti of Mound, Minn., a frequent online shopper who’s on a first-name basis with her postal carrier and her UPS and FedEx drivers, said that lack of free shipping is a deal-breaker. “ Anything I put in my cart stays there until they offer free shipping,” she said.

In fact, more than half of shoppers will abandon their online cart if they have to pay for shipping, according to digital-analytics company ComScore.

As free shipping becomes the standard, some retailers are taking it up a notch by offering free shipping on returns. It’s highly popular with higher-end clothing or shoe retailers, which have high online return rates, mostly because of issues with fit.

Nearly 40 percent of clothing and shoes bought online are returned, but retailers are realizing that free return shipping increases sales. It removes one of the biggest barriers to purchases of apparel online, said Knowles of

Nordstrom offers free return shipping year-round, and Saks and Neiman Marcus offer it during the holidays.

Iowa-based retailer Von Maur has offered free shipping from its stores since 1914, and it started permanently offering free online returns last month. “Our customers can feel more confident buying with free return charges,” said Melody Westendorf, chief operating officer.