Can You Offer Free Lunches?

There is an old adage that there is no such thing as a free lunch. The same is true of free shipping. It is a variable cost of doing business. It ultimately must be passed on to customers, directly or through increased prices.

So why did Wal-Mart, America’s largest retailer, announce in early November 2010 that it was offering free shipping through December 20? Furthermore, why did competitors like Target and JCPenney quickly announce similar plans?

The answer is they all read the same market research. Consumers love “free” shipping. It is as close to a guaranteed way of increasing customer satisfaction as you will find. Conversely, an online shopper survey by Compete.com reported that high shipping costs were the number-one reason online shoppers were not satisfied with their orders. It is also why 65% of respondents indicated they prefer the “in store pick up” option, when available.

This tendency to avoid explicit shipping costs can present marketing opportunities to a creative businessperson. For example, a few years ago, one of the national pizza chains decided to offer a home delivered pizza that was larger than the in-store version. Customers willingly paid extra for the super-sized pizza, especially since it came with free delivery. Customers did not know (or did not care) that there was no incremental cost for the larger product. The extra price was in reality a hidden delivery charge.

The moral of this example is simply that customer perceptions and opinions define value in every transaction. If they are reluctant or unwilling to pay for one service, perhaps they will perceive value in some other feature that can fund the cost of the first service.

Finally, if you decide to offer free shipping, test the bottom line impact by initially setting a minimum threshold (for example, only available on orders over $50) on sales.

Accountability is a key to every successful marketing campaign, and this is no exception.

 

© 2011 by Dale R. Schmeltzle

 

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