Almost all retailers offered more free shipping this year. Nine out of 10 retailers planned to offer free holiday shipping, according to Shop.org, which is part of trade group The National Retail Federation.
And free shipping wasn't just an incentive for early shoppers. More than 46 percent of the major online retailers emailed their subscribers on Monday Dec. 17, a.k.a. free shipping day, with offers to ship gifts free with no minimum purchase. Fewer than 10 percent made that offer last year, according to marketing software company Responsys.
That spurred shoppers to spend more — online shopping is expected to have risen 17 percent this holiday season to a record $43.4 billion, according to comScore. But with that increase came logistical problems, and not just at small retailers. Karla Neville, 31, who works in national event marketing in New York, was enticed by Gap's offer of 30 percent off everything. She ordered a sweater, belt and tie for her husband from Banana Republic's website, which is owned by Gap Inc.
Gap separated the order into two and sent the sweater and tie by FedEx and the belt by UPS. Neville never received the belt, discovering online that the UPS package had been returned to Gap for reasons unknown. She doesn't want the belt anymore, just a refund.
"I no longer feel confident that if they re-ship it I will get it in time," she said.
Gap spokeswoman Edie Kissko said that the company sometimes sends items separately depending upon what part of the country the order is shipped from and its destination, a common retail practice known as "split shipping." Gap did not comment on the specific incident.
When shipping goes wrong, all is not lost. Good customer service can save a bad experience.
Charles Hansen III, 49, a consultant in Falls Church, Va., tried to buy a salad spinner from a secondary seller on Amazon's Marketplace, but it came crushed in the mail. He dreaded contacting the seller through the online Web form required, but the seller ended up getting right back in touch with him and sent him a new salad spinner within a few days. He didn't even have to send back the crushed one.
"I was apprehensive. I thought 'Oh, great,' especially when I got to the Amazon website and had to go through this cumbersome process," Hansen said. "But I was pleasantly surprised. If it had wound up being a bad experience I could see doing a lot less online next year — but it turned out very well."
AP Business Writer Samantha Bomkamp in New York contributed to this report.