December 29, 2009, 12:00 AM

For top e-retailers, holiday ‘09 was the season for free shipping and innovative promos

Online retailers dressed up their sites in the weeks leading up to Christmas with free shipping offers and generous and unusual discounts

In a year when retailers looked more than ever toward a strong holiday shopping season to cheer up their sales reports, many dressed up the weeks leading up to Christmas with free shipping and generous and unusual promotions.

Online merchants kicked off the 2009 holiday shopping season with prominent home-page displays of special offers ranging from free shipping on all orders to discounts of 50% or more off regular prices, according to Internet Retailer’s annual survey of the top 100 online retailers by sales as listed in the Internet Retailer Top 500 Guide. The survey was conducted by the magazine’s editorial staff weekly throughout the holiday shopping season.

Like last year, 60 or more retailers offered free shipping of some kind each week, though by the week before Christmas 2009 the total had reached 73, up from 68 a year earlier. And while steep discounts and innovative promotions appeared in early November, they became more common as Christmas drew nearer.

Deals of the day

Among the more unusual home-page offers was Systemax Inc.’s “PC-A-Day-Giveaway” on the retailer’s three e-commerce sites, TigerDirect.com, CompUSA.com and CircuitCity.com. The program, which actually started in October, was also promoted as “77 personal computers in 77 days,” and included a complete PC system valued at $700 with a 22-inch monitor.

Other retailers also jumped on the deal-of-the-day bandwagon. Walmart.com ran a “Value of the Day” promotion; Walgreens.com offered a different deal every day for 30 days; and Overstock.com offered 25 different deals over 25 days plus discounts of up to 76% off regular prices.

LaneBryant.com, a Charming Shoppes women’s apparel brand, ran a “12 Days of Christmas” promotion with a new offer each day. On the fifth day, for example, its e-mail pitch was: “On My 5th Day of Shopping Lane Bryant Offered Me: Buy 1 Get 1 50% off All Seven7.” Seven7 is a fashion apparel brand.

Fingerhut e-mailed its customers a look ahead at daily promotions, with a calendar image that let recipients click each day to view offers including a free memory card with the purchase of a digital camera.

One of the most robust e-mail campaigns was from Kohl’s, which sent a different e-mail every day, with offers such as 25-65% off electronics and 50-60% off outerwear.

This deal floats

Bass Pro Shops offered what was probably the most unusual home-page promotion: anyone who bought $250 worth of gift cards got $1,000 off the purchase of a boat.

The most common theme of the season, however, was the prevalence of steep price discounts. Sierra Trading Post displayed the biggest markdowns, at 60-90% off regular prices. Oriental Trading Co. offered discounts up to 75%, and Lowe’s, The Company Store, Musician’s Friend, Barnes & Noble and Buy.com offered 60% or more off. HayNeedle.com had discounts up to 60%; Drugstore.com and Gap, up to 50%.

Among home-page free-shipping deals, several were combined with price discounts on products. Army & Air Force Exchange Service and Walgreens each offered free shipping and $10 off on products of $60 or more; Safeway combined free shipping with $15 off on purchases of $99 or more; eBags linked free shipping with a price discount of 10%.

And with a special touch of the Christmas spirit, the Systemax sites offered a charity-related promotion-a 72-hour “Pink Friday” sale during which it donated a portion of proceeds to breast cancer research.

paul@verticalwebmedia.com

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