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How to set your free shipping threshold [ + free calculation template]

illustration of a person holding a package with a calculator in the background

We all know that today’s online shoppers want free shipping. The real question is: What’s the best way for merchants to offset the financial burden?

Because unless you’re a behemoth like Amazon or Target, absorbing shipping costs on every order just isn’t attainable.

There’s a wide range of strategies that ecommerce merchants can use to afford free shipping. You can: 

  • Bake the cost of shipping into product prices.
  • Turn free shipping into a loyalty program perk.
  • Use it as a limited-time offer to drive buyer urgency.

But there’s another, more sustainable strategy that’s open to you: Implementing a free shipping threshold.

So, how can your business calculate a free shipping threshold that maximizes profits and entices prospective customers?

If you’re asking this question, don’t panic; this is the guide for you.

Stats about free shipping

Offering free shipping isn’t so much about gaining a competitive edge. It’s about making sure that your business doesn’t fall behind. 

These stats highlight how free shipping is no longer a perk for online shoppers; it’s an expectation.

  • 66% of consumers expect retailers to offer free shipping on all orders, while 80% expect retailers to have a free shipping threshold.
  • Over 50% of orders from the 30 biggest ecommerce merchants involve free shipping.
  • 94% of customers say that free shipping is the offer they want most during the 2021 holiday season, followed by fast shipping (60%).
  • 68% of online shoppers surveyed said they didn’t make a purchase at least half of the time when a retailer didn’t offer free shipping.

Merchants selling products online need to think carefully about how to create a free shipping policy that works for their needs. A free shipping threshold is a strong tactic to help offset shipping costs and increase gross profits at your business.

The benefits of having a free shipping threshold

Meet consumer expectations. As we demonstrated above, most consumers expect merchants to have some kind of free shipping offering. By only having flat-rate shipping available, you’re missing out on a valuable opportunity to reward your most valuable customers. This is especially important during the holiday season, where consumers are more likely to experiment with new brands.

Protect your profit margins. In the age of Amazon, smaller merchants are faced with a choice: To follow suit with free shipping and make a loss, or to lose customers. A free shipping minimum gives you the best of both worlds by ensuring that free shipping is only given to orders with strong profit margins. 

Boost average order value (AOV), A free shipping threshold is a clever marketing tool that entices customers to add an extra item or two to their shopping cart. A study by Shippo found that 93% of consumers will take action to qualify for free shipping at an online store, with buying additional items the most common strategy.

What happens when your free shipping threshold is too low or too high

If you’re going to implement a free shipping threshold, you need to do it right. 

Your threshold needs to hit that sweet spot between protecting your profit margins and persuading online shoppers to put a little more on their credit cards.

It’s tempting for retailers to pick a nice round number like $25 or $50 and be done with it. But if your free shipping minimum is either too low or too high for your Average Order Value (AOV), this results in the following:

Your AOV will take a hit

If your free shipping threshold is too low or too high, your customers have little incentive to spend more money at your store. 

With a low threshold, you’ll have too many customers who easily qualify. This means they have no motivation to add additional items to their cart.

A high threshold that’s out of whack with your AOV is just as discouraging. If customers have to spend more than the cost of shipping to qualify, they’re obviously not going to. 

Either way, an inaccurate threshold will cause your AOV to drop.

Your cart abandonment rate will increase

Cart abandonment is a major issue for ecommerce stores, as it will usually take multiple site visits for a customer to commit to a purchase. However, the biggest reason for cart abandonment is unexpected costs. 

According to Baymard, nearly half (49%) of consumers list ‘extra costs’ such as shipping and taxes as causing them to abandon a shopping cart.

In sum, a too-high free shipping threshold will put many consumers off from going through with a purchase.

This is unlikely to happen in the case that your free shipping threshold is too low. Instead, it will have the opposite effect; if free shipping is accessible, your conversion rates are likely to go up. 

While this might seem like a good thing, it’s a serious problem if lower order values are eroding your profit margins. If this happens, your business could end up making a loss.

How to calculate the right free shipping threshold for your business

So, how do you find the optimum free shipping threshold that works for your business? 

Check out our calculation template below:

Step 1: Find your averages

To arrive at the perfect price point, you need to examine your order data to understand how much your customers are spending. To get an accurate overview, we recommend using a 12-month window to account for seasonal fluctuations. 

Note: It’s important to exclude time periods where limited-time shipping offers have been in place, as this will distort your data.

The metrics you need:

  • Average Order Value
  • Average Shipping Cost (this should include all associated costs, including labels, packaging, etc.)

Step 2: Calculate your Gross Profit Margin

You can calculate your Gross Profit Margin by taking your Total Sales for the defined period and subtracting the Cost of Producing Product, then dividing this by your Total Sales

So, if your Total Sales were $80K and the Cost of Producing Product was $30K, your Gross Profit Margin would be 62%:

$80,000 – $30,000 / $80,000 = 0.62

Step 3: Test your Minimum Cart Value

Now that you know your Gross Profit Margin, it’s time to experiment with some free shipping thresholds to see how they affect your business.

Imagine that your Average Order Value is $50, while your Average Shipping Cost is $7. Let’s experiment with a Minimum Cart Value of $55.

First, you need to find the difference between your Minimum Cart Value and your Average Order Value, which you can do like so:

$55 – $50 = $5

Next, multiply this amount by your Gross Profit Margin (which in this example is 62%):

$5 x 0.62 = $3.10

Subtract this from your Average Shipping Cost ($7):

$7 – $3.10 = $3.9

This means that for every order that reaches a free shipping threshold of $55, your business will have to pay $3.10. Multiply this by hundreds of orders, and your profit margins will quickly vanish.

Let’s try the same calculation with a Minimum Cart Value of $60:

  • Difference between Minimum Cart Value and AOV = $60 – $50 = $10 
  • Multiply by Gross Profit Margin = $10 x 0.62 = $6.20
  • Subtract from your Average Shipping Cost = $7 – $6.20 = $0.80

In this scenario, your business only needs to pay $0.80 per order that reaches a free shipping threshold of $60. By upping your minimum order value by just $5, your business will be in a much healthier financial position while still incentivizing customers to spend a little extra.

By using the calculations outlined above, your business can experiment until you find that sweet spot for your free shipping threshold.

Here are a few other things your business should bear in mind when working out your threshold:

​​Be aware of how bulky/heavy items will affect your threshold

If you’re a retailer who has a small number of large and heavy items in their product catalog, you need to take this into account when calculating your free shipping threshold. 

Oversized items have a much higher DIM weight, meaning their average shipping cost will be much higher than small items. It’s a good idea to exclude these items from your free shipping offer and other shipping promotions, as you may have to use specialist couriers and/or pay for a different service level.

Decide if you’re going to offer free returns shipping

Customers love free return shipping just as much as outbound shipping. In fact, 71% of consumers say that restocking or return shipping fees would prevent them from purchasing from a retailer. 

While covering return shipping may boost conversions from first-time customers, you need to consider how this impacts your profit margins. Paying for return shipping costs in all incidences is a big financial drain, so you’ll need to factor this into your free shipping threshold calculations to avoid making a loss. 

However, returns behaviors such as ‘bracketing’ (also known as ‘try before you buy’) can result in your business losing profitability even with a higher threshold. Customers may be tempted to add additional items to their cart to reach the minimum order threshold with the intention of returning them later. 

There isn’t much that retailers can do to prevent this, meaning you have no choice but to absorb the cost. An alternative is to offer free shipping on exchanged items only, a powerful exchange optimization strategy that encourages positive return behaviors. 

Have a separate threshold for international orders

If you’re shipping online orders internationally, you’ll need to consider how this affects your free shipping threshold. International orders are more costly to ship, and also involve expenses such as additional handling and customs requirements. If you want to offer free shipping to your international customers, consider calculating a separate threshold for international orders that reflects these extra costs.

3 Ways to strengthen your free shipping offering

Now that you’ve calculated your free shipping threshold, it’s a good idea to think about other ways to make your free shipping policy more appealing to customers.

Make sure your free shipping threshold is clearly communicated

If customers are going to take up your free shipping offer, they need to know it exists. This is why you need to think about how to promote your free shipping threshold effectively.

Ideally, you want customers to be aware of your policy from the moment they enter your website. This means they’ll keep it in mind as they browse your website and will be tempted to add additional items to boost cart value. 

If your customer isn’t currently at your free shipping threshold, consider adding a pop-up at the checkout reminding them that they only have to spend $X to reach the minimum dollar amount. You should a/b test different messages to see which provokes the best response.

Offer multiple shipping options

One of the weaknesses of free shipping is that most retailers need to use a slow shipping method to keep costs down. While this is sufficient for some customers, others will get frustrated if there’s no option to get their goods faster. 

In a time where consumers are growing accustomed to next-day and even same-day delivery capabilities, you may find that even free shipping isn’t enough to secure a conversion. In the free vs. fast shipping debate, it’s flexibility and choice that wins.

Offering expedited paid shipping options alongside a free shipping promotion will help to address your customer’s ever-changing online shopping needs. with 70% of consumers willing to pay extra for expedited delivery options, you can provide another big motivator for customers to choose your brand.

Consider a shipping membership program

The success of programs including Amazon Prime and Sephora Flash has proven that ‘free shipping’ is something of a misnomer. Many consumers are happy to pay upfront to secure ‘free’ shipping – if it removes the friction of negotiating limited-time shipping deals. Having a paid membership available in conjunction with a free shipping threshold is an excellent way to offer customers to an alternative to reaching the threshold every time they shop.

How can I keep my shipping costs as low as possible?

The cost of shipping contributes to the burden that a free shipping offering places on your business. When shipping costs are high this inflates the gap between your average order value and your free shipping threshold, which may be off-putting for potential customers.

By partnering with Whiplash, you’ll gain access to favorable wholesale shipping rates with major carriers like USPS and FedEx. With our SmartRate Selection Tool, customers can compare shipping in real-time between carriers and shipping zones, enabling you to create a more enticing free shipping threshold that boosts conversion rates while reducing the impact to your bottom line. 

Paired with a state-of-the-art national fulfillment network that lowers transit times via multi-node fulfillment, Whiplash can help you transform free shipping into a powerful acquisition strategy. Contact us today to find out how Whiplash can coordinate the optimum shipping strategy for your needs.

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