The Crunch: While retailers use Black Friday — and the more recent Cyber Monday — to attract early-bird shoppers, expensive shipping and uncertain delivery windows have hindered last-minute shoppers from taking full advantage of the convenience and savings found online. Free Shipping Day, launched on a 10-day deadline in 2008, combines these two concepts into an event that invites merchants to offer customers free shipping with guaranteed delivery by Christmas. Free Shipping Day began with 225 merchants who reached $764 million in sales, and in just three years the event featured thousands of retailers and surpassed $1 billion in sales. Not only does FreeShippingDay.com offer details on which retailers are participating in the holiday, but the site also provides consumers year-round special offers.
As customers’ habits continue to trend toward online versus in-store shopping around the holidays, retailers have responded by shifting more of their traditional Black Friday doorbuster deals to their digital storefronts and launching new online-exclusive events like Cyber Monday.
These events offer incentives for the early birds, but they haven’t always catered to last-minute shoppers. While many online retailers now offer free standard shipping with minimum purchases, few guarantee delivery by a certain date — especially as Christmas draws near.
“About 10 years ago, online shopping would start to plummet about 13 days before Christmas. People were just heading to the malls; they didn’t want to risk ordering something online and it not arrive by Christmas,” said Luke Knowles, CEO of Kinoli Inc., the company behind FreeShippingDay.com, CouponSherpa.com, and other money-saving tools.
Luke decided to do something about the decreasing online sales around the holidays and created Free Shipping Day to serve last-minute shoppers with free shipping and guaranteed delivery by Christmas, allowing online retailers to cash in on more last-minute e-commerce sales.
Before FreeShippingDay.com was launched in 2008, most retailers weren’t guaranteeing holiday delivery. Ten years later, Free Shipping Day has become an e-commerce movement with a massive following that continues to gain momentum.
Ten Years Ago, An Idea Started a Shopping Holiday Sensation
As with many successful ventures, the concept for Free Shipping Day wasn’t developed after months of deliberation by a corporate think tank, but rather when one man decided to put a simple idea into action.
It was early December 2008, when Luke Knowles, who had been operating the consumer directory of businesses that offer free shipping, got into a discussion with a co-worker about all the new shopping holidays that were cropping up, the latest of which eBay had coined Green Monday. Luke was initially joking when he suggested they should come up with their own shopping holiday; but, as he thought about the drop-off in online retail sales right before Christmas, a serious idea came to him — Free Shipping Day.
“The idea was that Free Shipping Day would combine free shipping with the promise of delivery by Christmas Eve, and it would be marketed at procrastinators to be the opposite of what Black Friday was for early-bird shoppers,” Luke said. “We were seeing that some merchants could ship as late as December 20th, so it made sense to combine those two things. We really thought this holiday could change shoppers’ behavior and expectations so they would start shopping online closer and closer to Christmas.”
Luke launched FreeShippingDay.com in just 10 days as a bare-bones site. The next step — getting retailers to participate — would be more difficult.
“We originally chose merchants by just looking at whether they offered free shipping and stated they could deliver in time for Christmas,” Luke said. “We started with 25 merchants.”
As the media spread the word, more retailers jumped on board, including major companies like J.C. Penney, Pottery Barn, and the Williams-Sonoma brand, and the original list of 25 participating merchants grew to 225.
“We had just enough skills to make a website and get publicity for this, but it worked,” Luke said.
By midnight on December 18, 2008, Free Shipping Day brought in $764 million for online retailers; by 2011, Free Shipping Day was responsible for over $1 billion in online sales.
“It had an impact, and it took off, and people followed what we were trying to do,” Luke said.
From its inception as a simple solution for last-minute shoppers, Free Shipping Day has broken retail records and grown into a holiday shopping event that, 10 years later, continues to play a major role in retailers’ marketing plans and consumers’ last-minute shopping habits.
A Merchant Listing That Helps Small Businesses Gain Visibility Alongside Major Retailers
A key struggle for small businesses during the holidays is the inevitability of competing with major retailers, whether it’s trying to match their rock-bottom pricing or retaining visibility among companies with bigger marketing campaigns.
Free Shipping Day is one way small businesses can take advantage of the rare opportunity for more equitable coverage, promotion, and visibility to online customers simply by signing up for what essentially becomes free advertising.
“Ever since we started, small merchants have done really well on FreeShippingDay.com because their offers are right next to those of Target or Kohl’s,” Luke said. “We’ve had a lot of small businesses reach out to us and say, ‘This was our best day ever, thanks for all the traffic.’ On Black Friday, nobody else is putting them right next to Macy’s or J.C. Penney — we’re giving them free marketing.”
Major retailers depend heavily on their own marketing campaigns to grow customer awareness around holiday promotions, but for smaller merchants, Free Shipping Day is one of the few ways to showcase their involvement in the event while being promoted on a highly trafficked site.
In a market dominated by big brands, Free Shipping Day helps level the playing field so that, at least during the peak holiday season, small businesses can build their brands right alongside giant retailers.
Holding Retailers to Across-the-Board Free Shipping Standards
When Free Shipping Day started, many of its participating merchants held fast to their rules regarding free shipping, such as requiring customers to meet a minimum order value. With merchants’ offers varying widely and the need to create a standout event at a time when free shipping deals were becoming more common, Free Shipping Day made a change: In 2013, it started requiring its participants to offer completely free shipping on all customer orders, no requirements or minimums.
“For instance, if Gap has free shipping on $50 every day, we didn’t want them to just participate with that offer. We wanted to make it a requirement to offer free shipping on everything during Free Shipping Day.” — Luke Knowles, Creator of Free Shipping Day
As a result of the policy change, some of its more than 2,000 merchants dropped out, but Luke wasn’t alarmed. Participation in the event tends to ebb when Free Shipping Day lands closer to December 16th — it falls on December 15 in 2017 — when more retailers can confidently guarantee shipping by Christmas.
“For instance, if Gap has free shipping on $50 every day, we didn’t want them to just participate with that offer. We wanted to make it a requirement to offer free shipping on everything during Free Shipping Day,” Luke said.
By choosing to revise the event so it better matched consumers’ expectations and their holiday shopping budgets, Free Shipping Day brought consistency among participating merchants and clarity to its purpose.
From A Single Day of Deals to Everyday Savings
Although Free Shipping Day is based on a simple concept, it continues to look for ways to expand free shipping and offer savings to more consumers. One way it’s achieving this is by revamping its website to feature year-round free shipping and other special deals from participating retailers.
“We find that people still come back to the site throughout the year, so we want to provide coupons for merchants that participate in Free Shipping Day,” Luke said.
Free Shipping Day may not have invented concepts like free shipping or guaranteed delivery dates, but it is responsible for combining both into a singular event. Free Shipping Day attributes its success to its practicality: solving a consumer need for savings and reliability during the peak shopping season.
“If you look at all the shopping holidays out there, FreeShippingDay.com actually has a concept. It’s trying to accomplish something. So maybe that’s why it’s been around for 10 years,” Luke said.