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Online retailers extend free-shipping deadlines

With prices continuing to drop at stores, a sense of urgency has spread across the two-thirds of online retailers whose holiday free-shipping deadlines expire today or Friday.

After price, free shipping has always been the online retail industry's top promotional lure. So the calender this year joined the recession as a factor in forecasts for the online retail industry's first-ever flat holiday season after years of double-digits gains.

"With five fewer days between Thanksgiving and Christmas this year, free and standard shipping deadlines seemed to come earlier than usual," said Scott Silverman, director of Shop.org, the online retail trade group.

"Let's face it, some people only get motivated to shop when the pressure is on," said Helen Malani, a director at Shopzilla's Bizrate Research, which said the flood of free-shipping deals peaked Tuesday when Christmas Eve delivery deadlines for ground shipping passed for about a third of online retailers.

Yet more free-shipping deals are being extended right up nearly to Christman. Shoe seller Zappos.com accepts free-delivery orders as late as Tuesday. Shoe seller Vans will, too, if you spend $100 or more. Most other offers come with restrictions, require reading extensive fine print or are limited to selected items.

"We've still got some free-shipping deals left on jewelry," said Brad Bohnert, spokesman for HSN, a St. Petersburg mail-order retailer that gets 25 percent of its sales from hsn.com.

Some Web sites found that extending free shipping one day at a time brings traffic, creates a sense of urgency and prods shoppers to check back more often.

"They're using deadlines to get customers to panic," said Dan de Grandpre, editor in chief of dealnews.com, which combs the Web for discounts and updates free-shipping offers 24/7. "Last year, 40 to 50 sites extended free shipping the last few days; this year it will be 100 to 150."

Amazon.com offers free shipping on some items ordered by today. But it requires a minimum $25 order and the order must meet 14 other conditions. Free shipping, however, is available as late as Tuesday if you sign up for a one-month free trial of the $59-a-year Amazon Prime account.

"It's the first time Amazon ever discounted Prime membership," de Grandpre said. "That says a lot about the business climate."

Mark Albright can be reached at albright@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8252.

Online retailers extend free-shipping deadlines 12/17/08 [Last modified: Friday, December 19, 2008 2:40pm]
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