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Fine print shows not all free-shipping offers are equal

Free shipping won’t always reduce your total cost.

Eau Claire Leader-Telegram/AP

Free shipping won’t always reduce your total cost.

What shoppers seem to want most is free shipping. But at what cost?

Before the end of 2012, about 90 percent of retailers will offer free shipping, according to Shop.org, the National Retail Federation’s website. But that kind of near-universal acceptance leaves a lot of room for variety.

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Not all free shipping offers are created equal, and not all reduce the overall cost of your purchase.

“Retail is detail, as they say,” says Alison Kenney Paul, vice chairman at Deloitte.

“If you dive in, you’ll find that it’s free shipping on certain items with certain modes of shipping or free on just certain categories. You see that big yellow flashing neon sign, and underneath you have to read the fine print.”

“Retailers are in business, and shipping is not free to them — so they have to balance what they offer with the cost and how much it’s going to increase their sales,” says Dan Davis, editor in chief of Internet Retailer magazine.

So what do you have to know? Pay attention to these key details:

 Minimum purchase requirements. At Amazon.com, the gold standard has long been $25 for Super Saver shipping, and a $79 Prime membership gets you free shipping on thousands of items. Zappos, with free return shipping, is another leader, as is L.L. Bean, which offers year-round free shipping with no minimum. But elsewhere,minimum purchase requirements can go up significantly.

 Shipping speed. The free offers can take a week to arrive, which is why companies push faster, more expensive options. This season, Davis sees same-day shipping as the big trend. Amazon is testing this in 10 markets, and even specialty retailers are trying it out.

Moosejaw, a Michigan outdoor-clothing retailer, is creating zones near its warehouses where consumers can get expedited delivery, says Kurt Heinemann, chief marketing officer of Monetate, an e-commerce consultant.

His company also did a study for the Western retailer Sheplers that showed targeted free shipping offers increased sales and brought in new customers in areas where retailers were having trouble.

 Limited offers. At some retailers, free shipping is only for certain categories, like toys, or on certain days.

Free shipping discounts may cancel out other offers that may actually have a higher monetary value to consumers, like a deal for 40 percent off. And some sites require the consumer to input a code to get free shipping, which could allow the retailer to benefit from customer inertia.

Most retailers stop short of raising prices on items offered with free shipping because it would sour the relationship with customers, Davis says.

 Counting on price, ­instead. “Free shipping is the first thing people say they want, but what they say and what they do are often different,” Davis says.

Consumers want the item most of all. So they will buy it from the retailer who has it, regardless of shipping costs.

Andrea Deckard, who runs Savingslifestyle.com, rarely pays for shipping. But recently the Ohio mom was ordering on Amazon and ended up purchasing CrossFit socks, a specialty item for exercising, from a marketplace merchant and paid for shipping. “It was more of a convenience for me to get everything in one spot,” she said.

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