L.L. Bean is known for its lifetime guarantee on apparel and outdoor gear. In fact, the company's first ad (printed on a flyer in 1912) for hunting boots boldly declared, "We guarantee them to give perfect satisfaction in every way." However, 90 out of those first 100 pairs were returned because the rubber bottoms separated from the leather tops. Company founder, Leon Leonwood (L.L.) Bean, kept his word and refunded the purchase price for every return, even though this nearly put him out of business.
Over the years, this guarantee has remained part of L.L. Bean's dedication to offering the best in customer service, with the most well-known guarantee being the lifetime guarantee on Bean's popular backpacks. Now the retailer is raising the customer service bar even higher and guaranteeing free shipping, as of March 25, for all L.L. Bean merchandise, with no minimum purchase price. What does this mean for the online retail market?
According to CBS personal finance expert Carmen Wong Ulrich, this is a "big deal" and a big discount, since there are few sites that offer free shipping on all purchases with no minimum purchase or other restrictions. Zappos is the other major site that has always offered free shipping, Ulrich points out, adding, "If you go to these sites and you see that you are only spending $30, and shipping is $8.95, then you are a lot less likely to actually buy." Amazon Prime offers free shipping for a yearly membership fee of $79, but Ulrich says this is obviously only worth it if you shop at Amazon often.
For major retailers like L.L. Bean and Zappos, the free shipping offer is mostly about customer service, because they have to offer some incentive above other internet retailers offering steep discounts, and brick-and-mortar apparel stores where you can walk in and try something on for free. For L.L. Bean, free shipping is part of that tradition of guaranteeing quality products and of customer service that the company established in 1912. On L.L. Bean's website, the words "Shipped for Free. Guaranteed to Last" are written in large letters at the top of every page, reminding loyal customers why they keep returning despite the higher prices.
But will this be a large enough incentive for the majority of consumers who are pinching the life out of every penny in a scarce and uncertain economy? Stories of L.L. Bean's humble beginnings and dedication to integrity may make potential customers feel warm and fuzzy, but, as Ulrich says, it is not a discount site. Free shipping seems to be a bonus only for the people who are wiling to spend $50 on a pair of slippers. Will free shipping attract the reluctant consumer?
What do you think? Would you shop at an online retailer with slightly higher prices if they offered free shipping and a lifetime guarantee on all their products?
As you mentioned in your article, if I'm only making a moderate purchase and shipping would comprise a significant portion of the total price, I'm inclined to look elsewhere. I have a trial membership with Amazon prime, and since I've had that, I've definitely bought more from them than I would have otherwise.
A few of my other favorite retailers have variations on free shipping deals. Lee Valley (woodworking and gardening supplies) has two or three "free shipping" events per year, each lasting about a week. I don't think I've let one of those pass without ordering something! McFeeley's (woodworking/construction screws and hardware) has frequent $1-shipping promotions, which is definitely enough incentive to get me to place orders from them instead of buying from a brick&mortar store. (I've also seen $1-shipping coupons, or similar deals, which might be a good way for the retailer to provide an ordering incentive without encouraging people to make a bunch of tiny purchases that must be shipped separately.)
When I'm looking to order something online, I ALWAYS check one of these free/cheap shipping sites first, so they definitely get the bulk of my online-shopping business.