Take Advantage of Free Shipping Deals This Holiday Season

A record 92.5 percent of online retailers say they’ll offer free shipping.

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Skipping shipping and handling costs for online purchases can go a long way toward helping you stick to a holiday budget. Toss in gas and parking savings, not to mention convenience and ease, and the appeal grows.

A record 92.5 percent of online retailers will offer free shipping at some point this holiday season, according to the National Retail Federation's Shop.org division. That's up from 84.8 percent in 2010. Businesses say they've rolled out free-shipping incentives earlier this year than in the past, and have also budgeted for fatter shipping promotions.

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"What many consumers don't realize is that retailers often build the cost of this kind of promotion into their holiday budgets months in advance," NRF spokesperson Kathy Grannis writes on the group's blog. "So while the service isn't 'free' for retailers, it's something they know their valued shoppers look for when calculating the cost of gift-giving each holiday season, and this year, nine out of 10 plan to put the offer to good use."

According to a Shop.org survey, 36 percent of holiday shoppers say free shipping is one of the top reasons they plan to spend more online than at traditional brick-and-mortar retailers this year. The polled group also cited 24-hour convenience and lack of crowds in favor of online shopping.

A separate survey, conducted by digital marketing consultancy comScore, asked consumers how important free shipping is for making an online purchase this holiday season. Slightly more than three-quarters (76 percent) of those surveyed indicated it was important and 47 percent indicated they would abandon a purchase if they got to the virtual checkout and found that free shipping was not included.

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Anemic economic conditions are driving consumers to demand perks like free shipping. "With the persistent backdrop of macroeconomic uncertainty and continued high unemployment, consumers appear to be increasingly favoring the online benefits of convenience and lower prices," says Gian Fulgoni, comScore chairman.

Free shipping is expected to help retailers attract a growing number of mobile-device and social-media users who may be comparison shopping right in the aisles, at work, or on the go. In a tough pricing war, free shipping may make all the difference in determining what retailer a prudent shopper chooses.

Shoppers must keep in mind that restrictions apply, including, in some cases, a minimum purchase amount. Consumers may have little say in how quickly the gifts will arrive. Express shipping is typically subject to additional fees.

Consumer website freeshipping.org tracks nearly 4,000 stores for free shipping promotions and alerts users to whether a particular offer has a holiday expiration or is ongoing. It even keeps a list of retailers willing to ship for free to Alaska and Hawaii.

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Some retailers offer shipping promotions throughout the year, under certain conditions. Department store Macy's, for example, offers free shipping every day with a purchase of $99 and above. Housewares retailer Williams-Sonoma offers a Reserve Program that provides free year-round shipping with a $30 upfront membership fee. Electronics firm Best Buy is offering free standard shipping this holiday season with no minimum purchase price required on items bought by December 20. Discount closeout giant Overstock.com is offering free shipping on entire orders with certain exclusions.

As always, reading all the terms, conditions, and exclusions will reduce the risk of unexpected add-ons that can quickly gobble up cyber savings.

Another route to consider: Many credit card rewards programs, such as the Discover Card Cashback Bonus, which allow cardholders to cash in their accumulated bonus at participating retail partners, will ship the merchandise free of charge. Tapping credit card rewards, and taking advantage of the free shipping, is another way to stick to a holiday spending budget.