Is Free Shipping Day worth it? Here's what you need to know about potential savings and postal deadlines

December 14 is Free Shipping Day. But is the retail holiday worth the hype? Experts say probably not.
Image: Holiday Shopping Season Continues With "Cyber Monday" Deals
A U.S. Postal Service worker unpacks packages from a truck on Dec. 2, 2019 in San Francisco.Justin Sullivan / Getty Images file
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By Nicole Spector

Today is Free Shipping Day, which, as far as retail holidays go, is rather confusing. For starters, it has been difficult to plan around: Some brands and stores announced in early December (with BlackFriday.com keeping an up to date list) that they’d be participating in the event, but it’s largely been a wait and see game, as Julie Ramhold, consumer analyst with DealNews.com notes, adding, “Free Shipping Day is a thing, but also kind of not a thing” — a description that truly captures the vague weirdness of this day.

Adding to the confusing nature of this not-a-thing, but also-a-thing retail event, is the fact that in and of itself, free shipping isn’t all that big of a deal anymore (thanks for that, Amazon Prime). This is a holiday that, as Ted Rossman, industry analyst at CreditCards.com, points out, “started out as a gimmick” more than a decade ago, when e-commerce was still finding its footing and shipping was rarely free and quite often the bane of the online shopper’s experience. But nowadays, most large, competitive retailers offer free shipping once you’ve spent over a certain amount.

“It’s quite easy to get free shipping, so this is much less of an event,” Rossman says.

And yet, Free Shipping Day is an event, with dozens of retailers scheduled to participate this year and more likely to jump in last minute. The hubbub prompts the question: Is Free Shipping Day worth it?

Attention, shoppers: This is a marketing ploy, and consumer discretion is advised.

Neither Ramhold nor Rossman are impressed with Free Shipping Day, and both confirm suspicions that this is more marketing ploy than consumer perk as retailers make one final push for a strong final quarter. Rossman describes it as “definitely contrived” while Ramhold remarks, “honestly, I’m surprised it still exists.”

All cynicism aside, some of these Free Shipping specials can be just that — special. Shoppers wanting to get in on some good action should look for the following qualifications: free shipping from a retailer who almost never offers the perk (no matter how much one spends), and/or free shipping in addition to another steal of a savings opportunity.

“If a retailer that never offers free shipping is [participating in Free Shipping Day] and you were wanting to shop with them, jump on it,” says Ramhold. “I’d keep my eye on Bath and Body Works. That one always sticks out for me because they never have free shipping, period.”

What you really want to avoid is getting roped into shopping for the sake of free shipping. Do the math to add up what other kinds of savings you might be getting. If a retailer is imposing a minimum for free shipping, you’re probably better off passing — “unless you were going to buy the item anyway,” Ramhold says.

As with any sales day, you’ll want to also do your fair share of price comparison. Free shipping absolutely can get you savings — but sometimes you can still save more elsewhere, even with the cost of shipping tacked on.

Just because you see an eye-popping discount, that doesn’t mean it’s the best price.

“This is where the total cost of ownership comes into play,” says Rossman. “A trick applicable to Black Friday and Cyber Monday also works here: Just because you see an eye-popping discount, that doesn’t mean it’s the best price. When [a retail site] says that something is 75 percent off, that may be based on some super inflated price that no one really paid, anyway. The same thing can happen with free shipping. We hear free and say, ‘Who doesn't want free?’ But if that item costs 10 percent more than it does at a comparable store, consider that and don’t get sucked in by the marketing lingo. Shop around and look at the cost of the item with shipping. It may be less elsewhere.”

Read the fine print. Your order could take a while to arrive.

Free Shipping Day falls 11 days before Christmas. Plenty of time to get it before the big holiday, right? Well, ideally, yes, but possibly no.

“I’d almost bet money that even stores that have a guarantee that you’ll get your order by a certain time and date have a disclaimer in fine print that says ‘in an act of God, [etc.,] there’s nothing we can do about delays’, or something like that. We’re already seeing winter delays in certain states. You’ll also see plenty of stores saying that if you order by December 23, you can still get overnight shipping, but I’d brave the mall and pick up in-store before trusting that.”

Have an Amex or Mastercard? You may qualify for free two-day shipping, anyway.

Before taking the plunge into Free Shipping Day, check to see that you don’t already have free shipping perks with your credit card.

Both Amex and Mastercard (depending on the type of card) offer free membership to ShopRunner, a two-day shipping and returns service that covers hundreds of online retailers and is priced at $79 a year. You can check to see if you’re eligible for free coverage via your credit card here, and see which retailers are partnered with ShopRunner here.

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“A lot of people don’t know about this tip, especially when it comes to Mastercard,” says Rossman. “Or they may think that their particular card doesn’t qualify them, but often it will, and it’s very convenient. I’m not sure if the free service [terminates] should you cancel your card, but so long as your card is active, you’re in.”

Always use web browser extensions that can find you free shipping and other deals.

Rossman also encourages the use of browser extensions, price comparison apps and other digital tools that can help shoppers discover savings, including free shipping.

Here’s a list of must-haves in that department:

Rakuten (formerly Ebates)

RetailMeNotGenie

TopCashBack

Honey

Wikibuy

The Krazy Coupon Lady

Dosh

Flipp

Camel Camel Camel

Ramhold adds that shoppers should always sign up for retailer newsletters (at the risk of being inundated with spam, she adds), because often they’ll send you promo codes that can get you free shipping on your order.

Christmas shipping deadlines are sneaking up on us! Mail gifts ASAP

This time of year the cost of shipping is particularly relevant as many of us are lining up at the post office to send off gifts to our friends and family. The clock is ticking — with at least one window (UPS Ground) already shut— so if you’ve been putting off that trip to the mailbox, now’s the time to cross that errand off your to-do list.

“Be sure to mail your gifts by the cut-off dates, or to order online by the date recommended by the retailer,” sasy Kimberly Palmer, personal finance expert at NerdWallet.

Here’s a list of postal shipping deadlines to keep handy this week:

USPS:

  • Deadline for First-Class Mail: December 20 (or December 18 if mailing to Alaska, and December 19 if sending to Hawaii)
  • Deadline for Priority Mail: December 21 (or December 19 if mailing to Alaska or Hawaii)
  • Deadline for Priority Mail Express: December 23 (or December 21 if mailing to Alaska or Hawaii)

FedEx:

  • Home Delivery and Ground: December 16
  • Express Saver: December 19
  • FedEx 2day and 2day A.M: December 20
  • FedEx First Overnight, Priority Overnight, and Standard Overnight: December 23

UPS:

  • UPS Ground: December 13
  • UPS 3 Day Select: December 19
  • UPS 2nd Day Air: December 20
  • UPS Next Day Air: December 23

If you’re traveling and don’t want to lug your gifts to your destination or pay the expense of mailing them over yourself, your best bet is to inquire about in-store pick up in the zip code you’ll be visiting. Rossman notes that this is especially helpful if you’re going to be staying in a hotel and can’t have packages sent there ahead of you.

“A lot of times, stores will waive the shipping fee if you pick up in-store and often the item will get there quicker, too,” says Rossman.

HOLIDAY SURVIVAL GUIDE

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