PORTLAND, Ore. (TheStreet) -- If you're shopping online this holiday season or are giving gifts to folks who aren't within a quick drive, chances are you're shipping some presents. Don't blow it.
The National Retail Federation's digital branch, Shop.org, found that 51.8% of the consumers it surveyed will shop online for gifts this year, up from 46.7% last year. Shop.org forecasts that online sales will jump 12% over last year's holiday shopping season and fall between $92 billion and $96 billion. Meanwhile, 10% of all online shoppers told market research firm NPD Group they'd be willing to spend more this holiday season.
That's all well and good, but any online holiday shopper who's been around a time or two knows not all shipping options are the merry solution consumers are hoping for. Those elves working behind the scenes can turn into gremlins when shipping costs get too high, packages take too long to arrive or your precious cargo gets bounced around as if it were being kicked by reindeer the whole way.
If you're looking to avoid all of that hassle and have all of your presents arrive safely, promptly and inexpensively, we offer these three pillars of advice for exceptional holiday shipping:
Price: Get it free
If cost is your top concern around the holidays, free shipping should be standard anywhere you shop.
It's not exactly a rarity these days, either. Retailers including Amazon AMZN , Macy's M , Home Depot HD , Lowe's LOW and J.C. Penney JCP will throw it your way when you hit certain spending thresholds, but Best Buy BBY , Blue Nile NILE , Nordstrom JWN , Saks SKS Fifth Avenue, Neiman Marcus and L.L. Bean will ship for free no matter what you spend. It tends to work out for them, too, as 19% of all shoppers tell FreeShipping.org they're willing to spend full price on an item if it comes with free shipping.
Last year, market research group ComScore SCOR found that 56% of all online shoppers opted for free shipping, up from 50% just a year before. Those freeloaders tend to spend more freely, too. They spent an average of $118 on orders with free shipping, compared to the average $100 spent by folks who paid for shipping.
After last year's holiday season, Shop.org surveyed 52 online retailers and asked them to rank the top marketing tools they used to drive sales. Discounts still came in first, but free shipping without conditions and free shipping with a minimum purchase requirement ranked second and third, respectively.
Of those retailers, 57.4% said they would keep their free shipping programs the same this holiday season as they were last year, 29.8% said they would sweeten their free shipping offers somewhat and 6.4% said they would expand free shipping deals significantly. Only 6.4% said they would offer fewer free shipping offers. If a consumer's favorite store falls into that latter group of Scrooges, don't worry: They'll usually take part in Free Shipping Day on Dec. 17 and have that present on your doorstep by Christmas Day.
Speed: Get it fast
Speed doesn't usually come free, but you get what you pay for by chipping in a bit extra to get your gifts under the tree on time.
Amazon bases its whole Amazon Prime ecosystem of video streaming, book lending and express shipping around this idea. For $79 a year (or, soon, $8 a month), Amazon will ship any item in two days while offering access to streaming movies and video and titles from the Kindle Library service.
That makes the Seattle-based online marketplace a great option, but still not the fastest. The folks at online customer service site Stella Service measured the average shipping speed of online retailers and found that the average Amazon package takes 2.7 days to arrive. That's quick, but still only good for third place just ahead of The Gap GPS (2.8 days) but behind Hewlett-Packard's HPQ site HPShopping.com (2.5 days), tech and novelty site Newegg (2.3 days) and Amazon's online shoe shop Zappos (2 days flat).
Those all fell well below the 3.5-day national average. Amazon fares a bit better on returns, though, taking only 4.3 days while the rest of the retail world takes roughly eight. If you're still a bit unsure of the items you're checking off your loved ones' lists, Apple AAPL , L.L. Bean, Best Buy and Williams-Sonoma WSM all take fewer than five days to process returns and refunds.
Handling: Get it there in once piece
Retailers can offer you prices and promises, but what they often can't do is truck over your item themselves.
Some sites try this approach with third-party companies such as Amazon partner Lasership -- basically somebody in a car who takes your package from the nearest fulfillment center and drops it off at your door -- but usually you're going to have to go through a shipping company. Unless you're a strong DHL adherent, that means using UPS UPS , FedEx FDX or the U.S. Postal Service.
So which one keeps your holiday gifts safest? Popular Mechanics set out to answer this question two years ago when it took packages, stuffed them with a three-axis accelerometer, thermometer and a data logger to measure movement, g-force, temperature, orientation and other factors. If the packages they shipped were flipped, jostled, flung, overheated or frozen, they were going to know about it.
So what did they find? A mixed bag. If your item is going to be particularly sensitive to flipping, don't give it to the postal service, which flipped packages 12.5 times during a three-day trip. FedEx was somewhat better with seven flips per trip, but UPS only needed to move packages an average of four times during their journey. That's an extremely soft touch given the competition.
Unfortunately, UPS has no problem chucking your item around like a rugby ball when it departs and arrives. The packages registered an average of two acceleration spikes of 6 g's or greater per trip. That's the equivalent of dropping it 2.5 feet each time it's loaded on and each time it comes off the truck. FedEx is similarly rough, tossing packages 3.1 times per trip. The USPS shows a bit more restraint by keeping the drops to 0.5 for each package.
Meanwhile, if your present can't take huge swings in temperature, FedEx is your best bet. They kept the average temperature swing for packages at 26.1 degrees, while climates in UPS trucks and facilities varied by 29.8 degrees and USPS went through hot and cold flashes that varied by 32 degrees.
All three shipping companies had one very important feature in common, though: If they got packages labeled "Fragile" or "This Side Up," they flipped and flung them all the more. You're better off affixing a sticker that reads "Use me as a warehouse soccer ball."
-- Written by Jason Notte in Portland, Ore.
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