Retail Trends: The Unstoppable Search for Free Shipping

From years of tracking promotions, we know that free shipping incentives have risen steadily across all consumer retail sectors.  On the offline side, our MarketTrends studies show that 24% of apparel catalog campaigns included a free shipping incentive in 2009, up from 21% in 2008.  Similar growth was seen in non-apparel catalogs.  

For online, the story has been much the same, but the data is more telling. In addition to retail competitive activity, search data also helps us gauge consumer interest and intent with regard to free shipping.  And today’s shoppers are very interested in free delivery, and more so every year.  

General Searches for Free Shipping     

Below is the five-year trend for searches on the term “free shipping”. While the year-end holidays are the peak season, it’s clear that such searches have grown steadily year-over-year, accelerating significantly in recession-plagued 2008 and 2009.    

Google searches for “free shipping”    

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Smarter Searches:  Actionable Information    

Searches strictly on the term “free shipping” are by far the most common, but two popular variations are “free shipping coupon” and “free shipping code.” While the search volume for the simpler “free shipping” is much higher, the “coupon” and “code” variations have seen their own dramatic rise. What’s most significant about these terms is that they show how more searchers are seeking actionable information regarding free shipping, specifically the code needed for checkout.  This type of growing search sophistication is even more pronounced in the next section.  

Google searches for “free shipping coupons” and “free shipping codes”    

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Even Smarter Searches:  Bypassing Offer Restrictions

It’s not uncommon these days to hear how years of retail doorbusters and price wars have made consumers savvier and conditioned to expect phenomenal deals.  There’s truth in that to be sure, but the relentless compile/share nature of the Internet itself has played the biggest role in creating consumer fluency in all things marketing.  It isn’t just that today’s consumer is smart; they keep getting smarter.   

As an example, two of the most common free shipping stipulations used by retailers require spending a specific amount of money or buying a specific type of merchandise in order to qualify for free shipping.  Correspondingly, over the past two years there has been a new (admittedly tiny) surge in folks seeking out non-restrictive free delivery offers with searches like “free shipping no minimum” and “free shipping everything”.  

Google searches for “free shipping no minimum” and “free shipping everything”    

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Searches for Free Shipping   

Free shipping has become an important enough part of the online shopping experience that it increasingly shows up tied to significant gift events — sometimes general occasions (“free shipping birthday”) but mostly for specific holidays.  “Christmas free shipping” (not charted here) is by far the biggest and has increased year-over-year.  But growth can be found for other gift-oriented holidays as well.  The next chart shows the steady growth of free shipping searches tied to Spring holidays.    

Google Searches for “easter free shipping”, “mothers day free shipping” and “fathers day free shipping”    

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Free Shipping and Brands

Free delivery tied to brands also continues to rise.  Below are examples for Macy*s, Sears and Wal-Mart.   

Google searches for “free shipping” plus brand name    

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Brand-related searches speak to more than just general consumer research.  The searcher may have enjoyed past deals with a given merchant or be comparison shopping.  But brand-specific free shipping searches can also be influenced by other marketing vehicles and channels, like email and direct mail.  Whatever the case, we know from our own experience that “free shipping + brand” can perform well for online retail.  Any marketer that has a free shipping offer planned for the future should investigate leveraging a brand plus incentive combo for paid search.  

A note about this post
:  All of the charts above are drawn from Google’s suite of trending tools (Insights for Search, Trends for Websites etc.) This is a highly recommended resource for anyone interested in online consumer trends.  Google doesn’t offer the depth and breadth of tools like comScore or Hitwise (both of which are used regularly by PM Digital), but it’s a wonderful, easy-to-access option for getting a quick test read on new ideas and pet theories.  Best of all, it’s free!    

Glenn Lalich is Vice President of Research & Analysis at PM Digital.    


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