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HOLIDAY SHOPPING 2002

More Strings Now Attached to Online Deals

Plenty of sites still offer free shipping and other customer perks, but with conditions.

November 29, 2002|David Colker | Times Staff Writer

It's beginning to look a lot like a conditional Christmas.

All purchases at the discount Men's Wearhouse Inc. Web site -- including a $279.99 black Evan-Picone suit helpfully described as "appropriate for a funeral" -- come with free shipping. But unlike the early years of electronic commerce, when sites fought to outdo each other by lavishing perks on customers, "free" comes with strings attached this holiday season.

Sure, Men's Wearhouse will ship the purchase at no cost -- to one of its 475 stores, where the customer must pick it up.

"They might call that shipping," said David Schehr, who follows online retailing for market research firm GartnerG2. "I call it distribution."

Customers can have their suits shipped directly to their homes, although that costs extra.

Everywhere you go on the Net, promotions such as free shipping for life and coupons that never expire have melted away. Now there's a catch lurking in the fine print.

"You think you are going to get free shipping," said Lauren Freedman, president of research firm E-tailing Group Inc. "But then you find out that you have to buy a minimum amount and only from certain categories. You get a coupon, but it's only good for like five minutes."

The extras "are still there," she added, "but they come with conditions."

The trend began in earnest last year.

Back in 2000, 28% of major e-commerce sites offered free shipping on all purchases, according to a survey by E-tailing. Last year, it was down to 4%.

The golden age of freebies was the late 1990s. Since then, the extraordinary deals have died out with the companies that offered them.

More.com, a site that sold health and beauty products, offered its customers "free shipping for life" and locked in the prices of some items forever. As it happened, most customers outlived More.com, which folded in December 2000.

Elsewhere online, similar great deals included a $15 coupon from Pets.com with no minimum purchase, which amounted to $15 worth of free merchandise.

Then there were the three CDs or videos for $1 from 800.com and free overnight shipping from computer retailer Outpost.com.

"These were way too aggressive promotions," said Kate Delhagen, retail research director for Forrester Research. "There was no way a good business model could sustain it. You want promotions to attract a customer, but you have to make sure that relationship has a potential to be profitable. We've returned to good old marketing 101, if you ask me."

This holiday season, online retailing leader Amazon.com Inc. is offering free shipping for purchases of more than $25, though if a customer has purchased multiple items, they must all be grouped together in one shipment. Also this holiday season, Amazon has been offering a $30 coupon to shoppers who place a $50 order, but there's a catch: The $50 must be spent in Amazon's new apparel store.

The conditions are everywhere.

L.L. Bean Inc.'s site offers free monogramming in addition to free shipping. But to qualify, customers must purchase their goods with an L.L. Bean credit card.

The Web site for the Chico's chain of women's clothing stores offers free shipping to members of its Passport Club. What does it take to join? Simply spend $500 in the stores or at the site.

At Men's Wearhouse, about 20% of the orders placed on the company's site are sent to the stores under the free shipping policy, said Ralph Briskin, the Houston-based clothier's director of e-commerce.

"The customer gets a call from the store when it arrives," he said. "So it's a nice personal touch."

If the customer chooses to have his funereal suit delivered to his home, the shipping costs a minimum of $3. But Briskin said the in-store pickup option has its advantages. For instance, if the suit doesn't fit, the customer can exchange it right away. Of course, he also might spot a coordinating tie or pair of socks and make an impulse purchase.

"We love it that he might consider that," Briskin said. "It could only work in our favor."

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