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FutureNow Article
Monday, Jun. 23, 2008

Do Women Respond to “Free Shipping” More Than Men?

By Holly Buchanan
June 23rd, 2008

free shipping at online storesIn test after test, it seems “Free Shipping” is still a great incentive for online shoppers. I know I’m a sucker for free shipping. It just feels like, well, like I’m getting real value in the transaction when the company is going to eat the shipping costs.

Call me mean, but I like that thought.

I’ve long held a theory that women are more sensitive to shipping costs than men. I have no proof of this theory. It’s mostly anecdotal. When I talk to women about shopping online, shipping costs invariably come up as a sore topic, which is why I took notice of this discussion on the High Rankings message board about how women shop online.

Randy Cullom brought up some insight he had about shipping charges, and something he noticed with women in particular:

I’ve had two of these market research session since I first noticed the anomaly, and in each of them 80% or more of the women in the group expressed a strong or very strong dissatisfaction if the shipping and/or handling was out of whack from what they considered to be normal. As an aside, I asked those dissatisfied to write down what S&H they considered reasonable, and in all cases they were pretty much spot on with the real costs, with a little bit extra. Men seemed much more inclined to let “too costly” shipping and handling charges slide right on by. This still too small of a test group (only 60 women total between the two sessions) to be statistically sound, but the reaction has been so strong that I’m inclined to think it’s valid.

Interesting. Still not absolute proof, but it’s enough to make me ask, “How are your shipping costs helping or hurting your conversion, especially when selling to women?”

Consider setting up an exit survey when someone leaves your site to ask if shipping cost was a reason for them leaving without purchasing. If your shipping costs might be considered “high” by female consumers, what can you do about? Why not take a cue from Amazon and see if there’s an easy way for her to increase her purchase to the point that “free shipping” might make sense?

Another option: Create an incentive to purchase more products so that the shipping cost doesn’t feel as high.

For example, if you’re buying one pound of gourmet coffee for, say, $10 and the shipping is $8, there’s a good chance shipping is going to be a deal breaker. What if you tried a promotion where customers who buy 3 pounds get the fourth pound for half off. Encourage her to buy “a month’s worth of coffee.” You’re giving her a reduced price, which she’ll like. Shipping costs may go up a little to cover the extra coffee, but chances are it’s no longer 80% of the purchase price.

Obviously, you have to do what makes good business sense. These are just some suggestions. But if you’re selling to women, take a close look at your shipping charges and see if there are ways to lessen the sting for these shipping-sensitive women.

For more ideas on testing shipping costs, check out “How to Increase Shopping Cart Abandonment.”

Have you ever abandoned an online sale because you perceived the shipping costs to be too high? (I’d love to read comments from the guys as well.)

. .

About the Author: Holly Buchanan is a Persuasion Architect at FutureNow and co-author of The Soccer Mom Myth: Today’s Female Customer: Who She Really Is, Why She Really Buys.



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Comments (46)

  1. I’m male, and must put forward that we probably sympathize with exorbitant shipping costs because we see backing down at that point as confessing you haven’t been hunting and gathering enough to continue. I have abandoned many shopping carts, though, because people pretend it’s still a hassle to offer international shipping… :)

  2. Would it be inappropriate to offer shipping discounts selectively to customers who order female based products?

  3. Inappropriate? You set the tone for your own web site. Discriminatory? Of course. Get real, stay simple, if you’re willing to absorb the costs then do it consistently. Kevin, while women may convert better with your proposed structure, the re-purchase rate from men will stay just as low. If the question here was “Do Males Come Back To Pay Exorbitant Shipping Again?” my first comment would have been very different indeed. I know when I’ve raised an eyebrow at shipping costs. Perhaps we’re not likely to back out of the sale in progress, but I trust we do remember for next time.

  4. I’m male, and have abandoned so many shopping carts just because they lure me in with “free shipping” but then a list of “excluding items” or “excluding countries” came up the last stage.
    And I take shipping costs very seriously.

  5. I am female and I have abandoned my cart because of exorbitant shipping, but I am more likely to compare across two (or more) competitors and choose the one I feel is the best deal overall (including shipping). I’m not totally averse to shipping charges (because in reality, free shipping is not free–it’s just added in to the cost of the items), but I do feel some companies go overboard on them. Just yesterday I was on to purchase some seeds. I just wanted the seeds, but they wanted $6.95 in shipping to ship a $1.75 packet of seeds! That’s more than three times the price of the item. That’s ridiculous. I actually didn’t abandon my cart at that point–I looked around for some other things and ended up finding some really good deals on things I wanted. I paid almost the same shipping charges on 5 items rather than 1 little packet of seeds.

    I think I’m an anomaly, though. In my usability tests and personal interactions with women, I’ve noticed they often react very strongly to shipping charges–some even refuse to buy online period because they don’t want to pay shipping. Someone should do a study to prove your theory.

    BTW, I read your posts often, Holly. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on effective strategies for e-commerce. You’re awesome!

  6. We offer free shipping over $100.00, and it surprises me how many people will buy $95.00 worth of goods and pay for shipping. Every page mentions free shipping too.

    We are very aware of most people’s feelings on shipping costs though, and keep ours low and often lose money on the shipping in the process.

    I like the coffee scenario you mentioned, perhaps when we re design our site we can have multiple purchase discounts.

    Thanks for an interesting post.

  7. I am male, and personally I try to only shop at online stores that offer free shipping.

    With regards to how women feel about shipping costs, what if you offered free shipping and increased the price of the product (within reason) to cover the shipping costs? Would this make a psychological difference and encourage women to make the purchase? Or would they see right through that?

  8. Seems like everyone is sensitive to shipping costs. Nobody likes to feel like they are getting hosed. And everyone wants to feel they are getting a good value.

    With comparison shopping, (as Ann pointed out) raising your prices to accomodate shipping costs could hurt you in a comparison. But if at the end of the day she is spending $40 = $36 for a product and $4 for shipping, does that feel better than paying $32 and paying $8 for shipping? She’s paying the same amount, but does it feel like one company is charging more than a “reasonable” amount for shipping?

    I don’t know – it would be a really interesting test.

    thanks for the great comments – keep ‘em coming.

  9. For this online-shopping female, paying $36 + $4 does feel better than paying $32 + $8. I almost always keep shopping to get to the Free Shipping minimums (books and yarn, so stuff I can *always* use more of.) I’ll also do what Ann does, if the shipping price feels too high for one item – I’ll try to add to the order to make the shipping feel reasonable. And yes, I have sometimes abandoned orders because the shipping felt out of whack.

    If the price increases were moderate, and the shipping were free, I’d see that as a customer service decision and give the seller points for that, as well as thinking that other customer service issues might also be to my benefit. Better people to deal with.

    But I think setting a reasonable minimum for free shipping is a win/win. I’m likely to buy a little more each time, to reach that minimum (win for you) and I get free shipping on stuff I probably would have ended up buying anyway (win for me.) I buy one more $5 book and save $6.95 in shipping – works for me. (Added bonus: the search for just the right item to get over the minimum by the smallest amount – the thrill of the hunt)

  10. I know that in comparing online prices to offline prices, I normally figure in shipping costs so as to tip the scales slightly in favor of local stores. I also figure in the “immediate gratification” worth of getting something that very day. But, in the case of Zappos and Amazon (I have Amazon Prime), I never bother with that, not only because the shipping is free, but because it’s also FAST, which really blunts the whole immediate gratification imbalance. In fact, in the case of shoes and books, I mentally estimate IN sales tax AGAINST the local stores. As a result, I buy a 4 times as many books from Amazon as from my local book sellers. Just a thought – speed counts too.

  11. Holly,

    I agree on that. I think women prefer FREE shipping. We have observed slight increase in conversion after offering FREE shipping. But it is just slight change.

  12. OK

    First international shipping is a hassle and does cost more have any of you flown in an airplane of course it would cost more fuel is not cheap. Also let me guess you all believe that humans are destroying the planet but really to naive to see that planes are a huge carbon foot print then 10 cars.

    Then there is customs well if you think that is quick wow you live in fairy tale land and I would like the pixie dust delieved to me at your cost. We have customers cancel orders because when it gets to them they have to pay a duty those countries are Sweden, Italy just to name the last 6 that canceled. In Sweden it is 30 Kornas that is charged to them. In Italy it is 7 Euros. FedEx or any shipper can’t control that.

    Also I have a friend that works at Amazon and they have the same experience with customers sending orders back do to duty fees from countries including the 2 that I listed.

    So to sum it up yeah International shipping is a headache even though we still do it but don’t count on free shipping to ever come up for that.

  13. We did a multivariate test for a telecommunications client earlier this year on banner advertising. One of the things we tested was the offer (free shipping, free activation, free shipping AND free activation, no offer). The surprising winner was No Offer. Now, we didn’t break that up between male and female, and our guess is that mostly men clicked on this.

    But No Offer just beat the pants off of the other offers. So we optimized the banner and our results increased by 50%. Saved the client some money too, since they realized they didn’t need to offer it.

    MarketingSherpa did an article on this campaign in April.

  14. Well we have notice the only time offers really work like Free Shipping only works with email to customers and other direct marketing venues, plus it is on the site.

    Generally things like Google and Yahoo search stating Free shipping is very natural and does not make much head way in conversion. That is for every brand I control the marketing for.

  15. Amazon has figured it out and we follow suit at Comanity with our cell phones. We offer free shipping and it affects our sales slightly. We will test male/female differences. We will let you know.

  16. Thanks for sharing your interesting insights – please keep them coming. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’m learning a lot. (and it is really all about me :)

    You’ve got me wondering – is Free Shipping more effective at different stages of the buying process? Does it affect conversion more when someone has already decided to buy? If someone is early in the buying process, does it matter as much?

    I’ll have to ponder that one (and hope those of you doing testing will continue to share your results)

    And, hey – if you find any of that pixie dust – could you send some my way? I could use a little break from reality :)

  17. Last year I paid the annual premium price ($75?) for the Amazon unlimited free shipping. Guess what? I now buy twice as much stuff, have no qualms about buying something on a whim or going back the next day to buy something else, and I order most gifts through Amazon, too. Not exactly free shipping, but I perceive it as such. Elsewhere, a clothing site charges me for shipping by a sliding price range, not by weight — so a $100 4-ounce silk blouse costs more to ship than a $25 one-pound sweater. That’s crazy and I’ve written several times to let them know.

  18. IMO, I think females view high shipping charges as a dealbreaker if there is a store nearby that they can just visit. Males seem to feel the shipping charge is worth the aggravation of going to the store. I think it truly depends on the item.

  19. Shannon,
    You might be surprised to know many customers just don’t get it that heavier items cost more to ship unless it weighs dramatically more like a fridge. We charge by the weight of the item and I we receive emails from time to time saying the exact opposite. For instance if they order an item that weighs 10 pounds but is only $30 they think it should be cheaper to ship than an item that costs $75 and only weighs 4 pounds even though we tell them the shipping weighs of the items front and center on the shipping page. So chances are the retailer you’ve been emailing runs into the same thing but just decided to go the other way with it and charge by dollar value. It’s hard to win on shipping charges either way.

    The bottom line is customers many times don’t understand how much it really costs to ship something just in shipping charges — when you factor in all the fees such as fuel surcharges, annual price increases, and residential fees it’s really quite expensive. Not to mention the boxes, packing materials, and time required to pack which which we don’t even charge our customers for…

  20. Keith,
    You’re not dealing with shipping. You’re dealing with psychology. If for instance, we have a workshop, and the workshop is $2000, then the customer will spend $500-800 as travel/hotel costs. If however, the workshop is $1000 or lower, the customer may not turn up. If the workshop is free–and worth $2000–then the customer still won’t turn up. This is because the additional cost can’t be equal to or above the product/service cost, even when the value of the product/service is more than apparent.

    It’s not a logic issue.
    It’s a psychological issue.


  21. Keith, maybe I didn’t explain it correctly. The site charges $X for purchases totalling $1 to $100; they charge $XX for purchases totalling $101 – $200; and so on. It doesn’t matter what the items actually weigh. So in theory (and practice) this company can and has charged me more to ship one light-weight but expensive item than three heavy-weight but cheap items. There’s no logic (or psychology). They’re just doing something that’s convenient for them and annoying to me.

  22. Nice point Sean, you’re right it is definitely not logically, logically we would all want it broken down so we could see where every dollar of the expense went to, not hidden in the price of the item. It is psychology that is why the strategy works for them so well with the free shipping. However I would say they are a volume business, so it makes sense for them to give away shipping because they might only make a tiny on each sale like wal-mart but a tiny times 10 different sales to the same consumer is a lot. A great strategy but not for every store…. Not to mention they’ve got to have killer deals with the carriers due to the shear volume of shipments they make, which doesn’t hurt either!

  23. Holly, I was asked this question just recently while in a networking group of professional women. They asked what I thought would happen to free shipping in light of rising gas prices. I have not done my research yet, so all I could say was…if retailers online give up on free shipping, they will likely see a drop in sales from their women customers. We’ve come to enjoy the free shipping and women I talk to actually say they recognize that sometimes that shipping cost is buried in the product price. They don’t care. Free shipping makes them feel good. To Sean’s point…it’s psychology.

  24. In our 2007 Retail Customer Focus study 40% of the retailers (over 370 of the Internet Retailer 500) offered free shipping. It will be interesting to see where that number comes out this year.

  25. With gas and every single thing else going higher and higher, you better believe if I can get it on the internet with free shipping, I figure that’s just one more way I’m saving a penny here and there because that’s about all any of us can save anymore. I have plenty of male friends that will jump on free shipping too. So I really don’t think it has anything to do with being focused towards male or female. But that’s my opinion.

  26. We offer Free Shipping on orders over $55, and bigger discounts on express shipping when you buy more.

    All our competitors have: the more you buy the more you pay on shipping. Ridiculous if you ask me. With higher profits you can offer better discounts.

    We look at it that we like to reward a good customer with cheaper shipping, so the more you buy the lower the shipping.

    Make sense to us

  27. What about speed, how important is speed to the customer?

    Get Free shipping and have to wait a week to get it, or pay a little and get it in 2 days.

    Any insights.

  28. We used to offer free shipping, but stopped as it was a huge cost even with a minimum order threshold. From our experience we offered the free shipping which the site defaulted to and let them know it would take a couple of extra days and I’d say 15%-20% that qualified for free shipping would actually chose to pay for regular 3-5 day shipping to get it a couple of days quicker.

  29. I definitely factor shipping costs into the purchase decision. The other “extra” is whether or not I’ll be charged sales tax. I would think most consumers are smart shoppers these days and know to tally up the product price, shipping and sales tax to arrive at a final figure that they can compare to other online and offline retailers.

  30. This is an interesting question that I’ve struggled with for my online business. The reality is that if your competitors are offering free shipping, you almost have no choice but to do the same. However, many businesses claim to offer free shipping, but actually roll the cost into the price of their product, unbeknownst to their consumers. As a business owner, it’s a tough balance between offering a fair price to your customers, a great service, and earning a profit in spite of rising fuel prices.

  31. Your question (Have you ever abandoned an online sale because you perceived the shipping costs to be too high?)

    My answer: Most certainly. I don’t mind paying a fair shipping rate. We ship things daily out of one of my companies, and I know the general costs of shipping. If I order something and the s/h seems unreasonably high I will refuse to do business with the site because I believe they are trying to pull a fast one on their customers by soaking them on the shipping cost.

    I never mind paying a reasonable shipping rate so long as I’m getting it for less online than I would at freddies, etc. It is always a pleasant surprise to get a good price on a product and free shipping though.

  32. Here’s one – we have about 200 SKUs on Amazon. Due to varying weights/prices/sizes already discussed we have a table based shipping rate schedule that increases as the cost increases, and we price our items accordingly. Over the past year we’ve refined it to the point where it’s quite accurate for our particular types of inventory. One of our more popular items is only $18, but has an $12 shipping charge due. Over time, we’ve had more than several comments about shipping being so expensive relative to the cost of the item. By FAR these comments have come from our female customers. In fact, we’ve even had 2 female customers cancel their order when they realized the shipping for this item was 2/3 of the item cost. The irony, however, is that for this particular item the *TOTAL* price (item + shipping charge) is BY FAR cheaper than almost any other store on the web and even matches the cost of buying the item in many bricks and motar outlets. When we point this out in as diplomatic a manner as possible, this has never changed a female’s perception of the shipping charges being unwarrented. By contrast, the two men who at first complained, changed their minds when they reevaluated the *total* price. So, in conclusion the topic of this article is in line with our experiences as well.

    All this being said, we are sensitive to this issue as we want to appeal to all customers. We are currently in the process of transitioning our own site (not our Amazon listings) over to FREE SHIPPING OVER $50. I’d be interested in seeing a discussion on the challenges of doing this. We’re finding that it’s great for more expensive items (we just reprice and build the shipping cost in), but that for the cheaper items we need to raise the price so the items when ordered in volume will still cover shipping costs. The challenge here though is to not price the item so high that you’ll completely discourage people from buying quantities below $50. In any case, I’d be interested in seeing some discussion and blog posts surrounding the challenges of re-pricing your inventory (cheap and expensive, light and heavy, big and small) to make free shipping feasible. The bottom line for us is that we (nor do we believe anyone else) will actually *eat* shipping charges. Instead our believe is that the shipping charges are simply built into the price. So if you go from being a site that charges for shipping to a site that provides free shipping, then repricing is almost a necessity (unless your product is jewelry or something similar with a high margin and low weight where you actually *can* eat the shipping).

  33. By the way, another issue with free shipping that would be interesting to discuss is “How do you handle returns when you sold the item with free shipping.” The customer will almost certainly expect to be refunded the total cost of the order since the shipping was “free” after all, right? We are thinking of charging a %10 restocking fee. Bottom line is that like it or not shipping charges are built into the order total even if not done explicitly. We’re also interested in knowing how people are approaching these types of site conversions to offering FREE SHIPPING (from charging for shipping).

  34. In regards to items shipped with free shipping and returned we charge them a nominal return fee of around $6.95-9.95 for the returned item dependant upon the weight. Its just enough to cover our shipping costs but we still eat the packaging (boxes, peanuts, etc.), employee time cost, and other minor costs. It seems to go over ok most of the time as people realize there are costs involved to the company regardless of it they keep it or not but every now and then we get a customer who is unhappy thinking returns must be free even though it is clearly posted on our shipping page that a return shipping charge will be added to items shipped with free shipping.

    Free shipping really is just a lose, lose situation for retailers in my opinion. It’s kind of like another form of price wars, which anyone who has taken any type of business course realizes competing on price solely cannot be substained, it is the number one no no of marketing and business. Free shipping is great for generating quick sales for those customers on the edge of buying the item but you really cannot win if they decide to return it. It would be interesting to know if customers with free shipping on their order have a higher return rate because they are sometimes less committed in the first place?

  35. Thanks for the feedback on charging a nominal fee (similar to charging a “restocking” fee). On price competition, one fear I have is losing the ability to compete on item price as this has been one of our big pitches thus far. To date, for about 90% of our items we’ve always tried to be the lowest price we could find in the comparison tools. By opting to offer free shipping (necessitating an increase in item price) we’re going to be moving away from this model of competing on item price (particularly for items valued under $10 and $5). So bottom line there, is the migration to free shipping is going to move us away from competing on price per item, but hopefully still keep us competitive on total order size.

    All this being said, one of the reasons we’re moving to “free” shipping, is that we want to start encouraging people to place larger orders as the level of effort associated with packing a $60 order is usually not 3x as high as packing a $20 order. Likewise, customer service that requires a human reply doesn’t scale well, so if we’re going to spend time with call center staff replying to customer emails, then we’d rather be doing it over $60 orders with 12% margins, than $20 orders with 15% margins. So we’re hoping that Free Shipping will be method to increase order size, and increase purchasing power with suppliers.

    Lastly, we’re hoping to look a bit more professional with a “free shipping over $50″ policy. Our impression, true or not, is that it’s usually the bigger operations that offer free shipping since they often have multiple distribution centers, bigger shipping discounts, etc. that make it reasonable for them to present themselves like this.

    I know I’m asking for perhaps too much out of “free shipping”, but you have to start somewhere I suppose.

  36. Rob, what kind of shipping service are you using allowing you to compete with the free shipping. the $6 minium plus house delivery charges plus rural address fees on fedex makes this nearly impossible for such inexpensive items as you are mentioning unless you are doing huge volumes. Are you using US Postal service media mail, or other? If so how long does it take to arrive to your customers and how heavy are the average items you are shipping for free?

  37. Great discussion Rob and Keith.

    On the business side, it really is about crunching the numbers to see which model makes the most sense for your business. (free shipping and raising prices vs. low price plus shipping cost).

    From a consumer point of view – as Sean said, it’s psychological.

    For women, I suspect that they are more sensitive to beeing “fleeced” and to getting a “bait and switch” where they get offered a low price, but then you hit them with a high shipping cost. (high being their perception, even if it is an acutal reasonable cost)

    I think it’s more of a feeling that “the company was not transparent with me” From a logical point of view, if the total price is still lower than what you can get elsewhere, that should be a win win. (which apparently the guys get) But I suspect she’s feeling a loss of trust. It has become a trust issue vs. a price issue at this point.

    Many people simply are not well versed in what it actually costs to ship items. so it’s a perception battle you’re fighting.

    I’d love to hear more from you about your approaches and what you’re finding is working or not working.

    thanks so much for sharing your insights!

  38. I try to find out the shipping charges before I start shopping on a company’s website. I don’t see a point in finding something I like only to them be charged a ridiculous shipping charge.

    About 4 years ago, I became an Amazon Prime member so I can have 2nd day shipping at no cost (other than the $81 prime membership fee). I think I make money off the Prime membership by no longer buying additional items (that I really didn’t want) to get to a free shipping. Although, I did get in trouble with my wife when the UPS lady told my wife how great it was that I was keeping her job safe!

  39. We recently changed our site to free shipping for all orders. No limits, no minimums. Haven’t seen any increase in sales or decrease in cart abandonments but the state of the economy can’t be helping.

  40. I have abandoned an online sale.The price of the dress that I planned to buy is $160 while the shipping fee is $30.It costs much to ship.However my boyfriend was not so sensitive as me.

  41. [...] Does “free shipping” attract more females than males? Interesting article from GrokDotCom’s Holly Buchanan. [...]

  42. That’s a really interesting question. In the first moment I think we have both: male and female in the same arrangement in our shop systems. So I think here in germany it doesn’t matter.

  43. I think I’m an anomaly, though. In my usability tests and personal interactions with women, I’ve noticed they often react very strongly to shipping charges–some even refuse to buy online period because they don’t want to pay shipping.

  44. women are attracted to anything thats attractive.. this is no different

  45. Of course free shipping attracts women, if it will bring a reduction in price…that’s what attracts women most

  46. Back To Pay Exorbitant Shipping Again?” my first shipping charges–some been very different any increase in sales or decrease in cart abandonments would have noticed they often react very indeed. I know when I’ve raised comment seen strongly to

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Holly Buchanan is a marketing to women consultant specializing in marketing to women online. You can read her blog at She is the co-author, along with Michele Miller of The Soccer Mom Myth - Today's Female Consumer - Who She Really Is, Why She Really Buys.

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