The Hidden Cost of Free Stuff

Free Shipping

You spot a $79 sweater online that your sister will LOVE. But wait. The shipping charge is $10—whereas if you spent just $20 more, you’d qualify for free shipping.  Obviously if you spend $20 more, the shipping isn’t “free.” But if you pick another item and get free shipping for both, that would be worth it, right?


Probably not, says Lisa Bolton, an associate professor of marketing at Pennsylvania State University.


In the rare instance that you immediately find something that you’d already planned to buy (gloves, say) and the price ($20) is exactly what you need to nail free shipping—fine.


But that’s not how the “free shipping” scenario typically plays out, says Bolton. First you rack your brain to think of things you really want (towels? kids stuff?).


After a while surfing, you’re frustrated, so you land on some sheets you need. For $120.  Now you’ve spent $120 on free shipping, Bolton points out. Worse: you’ve lost your lunch hour or evening. It’s the equivalent of buying a lipstick—then an eye shadow—to get the tote bag of sample cosmetics “free.”


Bottom line: Focus on what you’re actually spending, Bolton says, because there’s no such thing as a free lunch—or a free freebie.


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Retail me not. What’s the best (or worst) freebie you’ve ever snagged?