When Free Shipping Loses The Sale

The following scenario plays out in email inboxes everyday. Let me set the scene…

You get a friendly email from one of your favorite retailers letting you know that they’re having a special. Appealing looking pictures of pillows, pants, lawnmowers – whatever has been skirting the back of your mind but you haven’t wanted to pay full price for – gets delivered straight to your inbox.

There’s a coupon code in big capital letters with promises of free shipping.

“Sounds good,” you think. So, you bite.

You click through to the website only to find once you put the coupon code in at check out, you’re told that it doesn’t pertain to the items you chose.

You’re frustrated, annoyed, and likely ready to high tail it out of that website.

The offer of free shipping actually loses the sale because most people don’t like promises that aren’t kept. According to Statista, 56% of consumers surveyed in 2012 dropped out of the checkout process when confronted by unexpected costs.

Statista survey cart abandonment

Generally, this applies to things like additional fees or taxes that weren’t spelled out ahead of time. Getting hit with shipping when you’ve been told you won’t, definitely falls within the realm of unexpected.

Breaking down where it can all go pear shaped – a lesson from the real world

Let’s take a look at a real life example… see where things went wrong along the way.

Here’s the top portion of an email I received from a local company that I’m a huge fan of and have bought items from in the past.


When Free Shipping Loses the Sale

This jewelry company decided to use the Memorial Day holiday as an excuse to run a sale. Free shipping was the incentive which they made quite clear in the headline text and with the coupon code.

I searched around the email for a link or button directing me where to go. There was none as I scrolled to the bottom of the page. Eventually after clicking on the image, I was sent to the home page of the website.

A call to action with no clear trigger to trip is about as useful as an invitation to a party with no directions to get there.

I added two items to my cart, went through the checkout process, and got as far as typing in the coupon code.

No dice. The website denied the coupon because…the items were not eligible.

I went back to my email. Nowhere did it say the sale applied only to certain merchandise.

Guess what happened next? I got annoyed, then distracted, and ultimately, abandoned the website.

Be methodical with the entire process… from email to purchase

Start with your call to action

Decide what you want people to do and then make it clear and easy for them to do it.

Back in 1993, researchers in Palo Alto came up with the Information Foraging theory to describe how people search for what they want online.

In a nutshell, people behave like animals looking for food when surfing online – the only difference being humans tend to exert as little effort as possible hunting (for information.) We choose the path of least resistance and when rewarded with what we want will continue down the path.

So, providing a strong “information scent” – cues that give the visitor an expectation of a successful outcome by continuing down a path – can be the difference between action or inaction.

When Free Shipping Loses the Sale

In the case of the above email from the Washington Post, it’s absolutely clear where to click. The big blue button leaves out the guesswork.

Takeaway: Don’t rely on people to figure out what to do. Expecting your visitors to click on an image in your email that links to where you want them to go is not enough of a scent trail.

Make sure your customer understands the offer

Seems obvious but as the first example shows, it’s not.

Reading the copy on the email allowed me to make assumptions about the offer. Nowhere did the text say that only certain items would get free shipping.

This brings us back to another important element of information scent and foraging:

Always tell visitors what they will find when they click through to the next destination.

By sending me to the website’s home page, my assumption that anything on the site was fair game for free shipping was reinforced. If the copy had made it clear which items were available for free shipping then sent me to that category page, I could have quickly decided to continue or not.

Takeaway: Make promises you can keep. That applies to even the most mundane of things. Put aside time to think through your button or link copy. Then, tell people exactly where you’ll be taking them once they click.

Put yourself in your customer’s shoes

It’s easy to be in a hurry. You’ve got a marketing calendar and you need to stay on top of sending out your promotional emails.

The problem is that an ill conceived email can do more harm than none at all.

Shoppers already have a multitude of reasons to abandon their online shopping carts. From mere distraction to slow page loading times, it doesn’t take much to lose a sale online.

Don’t make a lack of trust in the process be one of them.

Design your email and copy to reflect exactly what your customers will be getting and where you’ll be sending them on your site. If you do that, you’ll be one step ahead of the pack.