By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 11/26/2007 10:25:03 AM ET 2007-11-26T15:25:03

More free shipping, an increase in Web-only specials and improved search capabilities await online holiday shoppers this season.

And a robust season it should be. This year, online holiday sales are expected to swell 20 percent, to more than $39 billion, over last year, according to JupiterResearch.

Maybe the biggest draw for online shoppers will be the increased number of free shipping offers made by retailers, as well some easing of restrictions on the amount of merchandise needed to qualify for free shipping, and more flexible cutoff dates for ordering and delivery, saidVikram Sehgal, a research director for JupiterResearch.

Kurt Peters, editor of InternetRetailer.com, said a survey done recently by the site “showed half of Web retailers will be offering free shipping this season.

“I expect that number will go up as Christmas approaches, so people should really keep their eyes open for those kinds of offers,” he said.

Of the Web retailers offering free shipping, 85 percent will offer “conditional” free shipping, which means a minimum purchase is required, Peters said.

Of that number, 32 percent will offer free shipping with a purchase of $50 or less.

One caveat of the free shipping lure: sometimes companies offer free shipping on items they have in overstock, or that are no longer in demand. Make sure what you’re buying is an item you really want.

Shopzilla.com, a shopping comparison site, includes a list of companies with free shipping offers. And it pays to pay attention to the details of those offers.

For example: L.L. Bean has free shipping, with no-minimum purchase on selected items, through noon EST Dec. 21. Eddie Bauer provides free shipping on all orders of $100 or more through Dec. 22. Barnes & Noble says it will do free shipping on selected items with a $25 purchase through Dec. 18.

Circuit City, as part of its “24” series of promotions, is offering free shipping on all orders that are $24 and up, with delivery in 7 to 10 days. Customers pay extra for expedited delivery.

The company also said customers can order an item online and pick it up at the store 24 minutes from the time of the order. If the item isn’t ready, the store will issue a $24 gift card.

Best Buy is promising “guaranteed” delivery by Christmas Eve for those who order by Dec. 21 for a “qualifying” item — one that’s in stock, and not “oversized,” such as large-screen TVs and some appliances.

If the gift is not under the tree by Dec. 24, shoppers who spent $50 or less on the gift will qualify for a $10 coupon to be used at Best Buy’s Web site; those who spent more than $50 will receive a $20 coupon.

The company, like many others, is planning a number of Internet-only specials.

It also will offer some in-store promotions based on information provided at its Web site, said Jeff Dudash, public relations manager for Best Buy.

Among them: Through Dec. 22, Reward Zone customers can earn double points when they shop in the store before 11 a.m.

Also, for the first time, Dudash said, Reward Zone customers will be able to redeem their points online toward purchases.

“We’re putting an emphasis on our customer loyalty,” he said. “We’re trying to reach out to our best customers.”

Wal-Mart, which had some online-only specials last season, will have even more this season, Peters said, “and other retailers will be doing the same.”

Wal-Mart also is pushing its “Site to Store” service, in which customers can order products from the retail giant’s Web site that aren’t available in its stores, then have the items shipped at no charge to a store nearest the customer for pickup.

Shoppers should also find it easier to navigate sites this season, with many retailers investing in improved search tools for gift hunters.

“What retailers have found is that their search capabilities were not adequate,” said Peters of InternetRetailer.com.

“Sometimes the search was only searching on a word – for example, winter jacket — not on the other aspects that helps customers refine their search,” such as brand.

More than half of retailers said they “will increase their efforts with search engines, in spite of rising costs” to do so, JupiterResearch said in its report, “U.S. Online Retail Holiday Forecast, 2007,” released in October.

Jana O’Leary, Target spokesperson, said the company has “recently added some technical improvements” to its Web site “which provide simpler navigation for guests.”

That includes detailed product information, which lets consumers “shop for products by searching by a specific detail, such as color or shape,” she said.

“For example, when searching for a sweater, the guest can search by sleeve length and style.”

There’s also “Quick Info,” a pop-up window feature that allows shoppers to mouse over a product to “retrieve basic details without having to click on the product link,” O’Leary said.

And, rather than call the store to see if an item is in stock, customers can search for an item at Target’s Web site to see if it’s available at their local store, based on ZIP code, she said.

The Web will also be a place where shoppers can personalize items such as gift cards.

At Target.com, you can choose from dozens of designs, including a gift card with a dreidel on it that says, “Happy Hanukkah,” or one for a teacher that says, “A-plus teacher” in the design of candy cane.

Starbucks.com is charging $4 to personalize cards, with designs ranging from a customer’s regular drink order on the card to “My Story,” showing a Starbucks customer – personalized as to setting (inside Starbucks, outside Starbucks, beach, park and so on), as well as gender and attributes such as glasses or no glasses, clothing (T shirt? Crew neck or V-neck, for example), as well as other features.

One thing shoppers likely won’t see from Web retailers this season is many offers of free gift-wrapping.

“A small percentage of people take advantage of it, and retailers haven’t really pushed it,” said Peters.

“If you’re shipping remotely, then it’s nice to have a present gift-wrapped, but it’s not a make-or-break deal” for most consumers, he said.

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