6 Things to Know About Free Shipping

Whether you’re buying a gift or treating yourself, use our tips to score free delivery and returns.

1. Loyalty pays. Register for your favorite retailer’s e-mail newsletter and you could reap the benefits of your devotion. The newsletter may give you access to members-only codes for free shipping, says Sara Tetreault, of frugal-living blog GoGingham.com (opens in new tab). In past years, Lands’ End and Nike have offered shipping deals around the holidays. Tetreault also recommends doing all or most of your holiday shopping at a single store. Many retailers set a minimum dollar amount for free shipping -- for example, J. Crew requires an order of $175. Store credit cards may also reward your fidelity. Target’s REDcard and the Gap’s Silver Card offer free shipping on all purchases made online.

2. Membership? Not so much. Some sites will enroll you in a free-shipping program -- for a fee. For example, pay $79 per year for Amazon.com Prime and you’re guaranteed free two-day shipping. The downside is that you’ll need to shop frequently at Amazon to make up for the membership cost (and orders over $25 are entitled to free shipping anyway). Look at your purchase history for the past year to decide whether such a program works for you.

3. Get the best price. Free shipping may be offset by a higher price. To find out whether the item you’re eyeing is available for less elsewhere even if you have to pay for shipping, compare its price among different Web sites. You can find a tool that factors shipping into the bottom-line price at PriceGrabber.com (opens in new tab).

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4. Think small. Don’t expect free shipping for your next 20-pound bag of dog food. Your best bets are shoes, clothes, books and light items, such as jewelry. Two reasons: First, retailers know that stilettos and dress shirts don’t always fit and that they’ll lose online customers if they charge $10 for the privilege of trying something on. Second, when massive retailers, such as Amazon and Zappos, offer free shipping, their competitors have reason to follow suit.

5. It pays to procrastinate. As the holidays near, online stores will do their best to lure you away from the malls and back to your desktop. Look for retailers to combine free delivery with other last-minute offers, such as 30% off your entire purchase. And mark December 17 on your calendar: It’s Free Shipping Day at FreeShipping.org (opens in new tab), with coupon codes from more than a thousand merchants and delivery guaranteed by Christmas Eve. You can search FreeShipping.org year-round for coupon codes and free-delivery offers as well.

6. Make your minivan a delivery truck. Companies such as Ace Hardware and Walmart will ship items you order from their Web sites to their brick-and-mortar stores gratis. The deal may also work in reverse. If a retailer doesn’t offer free return shipping, see whether you can return your item to a store. For example, L.L. Bean charges $6.50 if you return an item by mail; if you schlep it to the mall, you avoid the fee. Be sure to act fast even if the package comes with a return label. Shopbop charges $10 if a return arrives more than 15 days after you received the item. And, just like their brick-and-mortar counterparts, many e-tailers will stop providing full refunds after 30 or 60 days and instead offer store credit.

This article first appeared in Kiplinger's Personal Finance magazine. For more help with your personal finances and investments, please subscribe to the magazine (opens in new tab). It might be the best investment you ever make.

Staff Writer, Kiplinger's Personal Finance