Supply chain management scholar says holiday free shipping is not free for the retailers

Published: November 12, 2018
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Supply chain management scholar Dr. Rafay Ishfaq of Auburn University can comment on how stores are able to offer free shipping and can address how the expected increase in holiday spending will impact brick-and-mortar stores and online retailers.

Q. How will online stores’ free shipping offers affect the economy? Will consumers begin to expect free shipping all the time?

A. It has now been two years since free shipping has become the norm during the holiday season. But, once the Christmas trees come down and the excitement of New Year's fireworks is over, we have seen free shipping offers quietly replaced by free shipping offers only if you buy more than certain order value ($35 for Target, $50 for Walmart, Amazon Prime members pay $119 annually for free shipping). I don’t see much change in the current practice in the near future. To respond to customers' concerns regarding shipping charges, retailers are expanding their BOPIS (buy online pickup in store) service rather than offering free shipping year round. That is why we are seeing more and more stores offer curb-side pickup and a greater selection of online merchandise available for store pickup. Free shipping is not at all free for the retailers.

Q. How do retailers cover the costs of free shipping? Will they raise prices to counter free shipping?

A. Raising prices to offset shipping costs would be a logical option ... if shoppers won't notice. But, we are not in Kansas anymore. Shoppers know when they are being charged and are unwilling to pay for it. So, free shipping as of now is more to attract shoppers and improve market share. This approach attempts to recover shipping costs from sales-lift due to the minimum order value requirement to qualify for free shipping. The minimum order value makes shipping costs a smaller fraction of sales revenue, thereby improving profitability.

Q. Will increased holiday consumer spending breathe new life into brick-and-mortar stores?

A. We can expect the rising tide of consumer spending to lift all boats (no pun intended for sporting goods retailers). Brick-and-mortar retailers that have retooled their business model to compete in both local and online markets will reap the most benefit. We expect the share of online sales to grow again this year, though brick-and-mortar stores seem better prepared this year to give online retailers, like Amazon, a tough time competing to win over holiday shoppers. Retailers such as Target have already announced free shipping for all online orders, even before Amazon could offer the same service. Store retailers are also keen to leverage their brick-and-mortar store presence in local markets to facilitate returns for online orders that online retailers still can't match.

About Dr. Rafay Ishfaq:

Dr. Rafay Ishfaq is Auburn’s Allen Reed Associate Professor of Supply Chain Management. His research focuses on exploring the interplay between operational and service issues in retail supply chains. One of his key areas is order fulfillment and delivery services in omni-channel retail supply chains. The findings of his research studies have been published in numerous scholarly journals. More information about Dr. Ishfaq is available at