Last year was all about shopping early — following the shipping delay debacle from 2013, nearly half of holiday shoppers shopped earlier to avoid shipping delays. While retailers braced themselves for an earlier shopping season last year, this year consumers will consistently shop throughout the holiday season.

A recent Pitney Bowes survey uncovered that shoppers plan to consistently shop during the weeks leading up to the December holidays. In fact, the majority of holiday shoppers (56%) of holiday shoppers will purchase the majority of their goods the weekend beginning on Black Friday and ending on Cyber Monday, while others plan to do the bulk of their shopping in December (34%) or before Thanksgiving (30%).

For retailers, this holiday season will truly be a survival of the fittest. Those who can endure a lengthier, more consistent shopping season will come out on top. But to do this, retailers will need to focus their energies on giving consumers exactly what they want: options.

Free Over Fast

Shipping options have long been an important factor in the overall shopping process, and that importance is growing. According to the Pitney Bowes 2015 Holiday Shipping Survey, 93% of holiday shoppers (compared to 70% last year) find shipping to be important to the shopping experience. Specifically, free shipping plays a crucial role in shopping behaviors, with 88% of survey participants preferring free shipping (with 5-7 day delivery) over 12% who prefer shipping with a fee (1-2 day delivery).

In fact, 68% of holiday shoppers say they've used a promotional code or coupon in the past to qualify for free shipping, and 60% say they've increased their online spending to qualify for free shipping.

As consumers continue to place more emphasis on free shipping, retailers must consider offers that allow shoppers to take advantage of this shipping option. Offers like premium memberships are a great way to offer fast and free shipping — 41% of holiday shoppers say they're more likely to purchase a premium membership to receive fast and free shipping, while 39% confirm they'll even be more willing to shop with online retailers who offer this type of premium service.

In addition to premium memberships, retailers should also consider promotional and sales events. Eighty percent of holiday shoppers say they're more willing to shop online if they have a promotional code, while 61% are more likely to shop during a sales event.

Consider the Unconventional

Just as shipping options grow in importance, so too will the methods in which shipped packages are delivered. Over the past few years, companies like Amazon, Google and FedEx have begun experimenting with unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), commonly referred to as drones, in an effort to cut down on high shipping costs. Earlier this summer, Amazon even hinted toward "Uber-like deliveries" in which packages would now be hand-delivered by citizen drivers.

While these services have not quite taken flight — pun intended — consumers are becoming more comfortable with the idea of unconventional delivery methods in exchange for cheaper shipping costs. Last year we asked holiday shoppers if they were comfortable with these methods; 54% said they were not comfortable with this method, while this year only 25% say they're not comfortable with it.

As retailers begin to explore additional ways to offer free shipping, consider incorporating new delivery methods to help drive down costs. In the interim, don't forget to offer a number of delivery location options to customers. Whether it be to a home (84% of holiday shoppers prefer), place of business (25%) or nearby retail store (10%), ensure consumers have the option to receive packages wherever they are.

Ramp Up Return Options

It's clear that consumers want options when it comes to shipping costs and shipping methods, and the same applies to shipping returns. In the case of in-store returns (39%) versus returns through a shipping provider (38%), consumers are almost at a dead-even when it comes to preference. More so, 20% of holiday shoppers prefer to have a courier pick up a returned package from their location.

However, our findings did show that associated return shipping costs do not play a huge role in a consumer's purchasing decision. In fact, 39% say they'll make a purchase online even if they are responsible for fees associated with the package return, whereas 40% say they will not make that purchase.

Overall, consumers want options and they want the power to control their shopping experience—from shipping to delivery to return. The more options retailers offer consumers, the more power those consumers will have to choose what they really want this holiday season.

Christoph Stehmann is Chief Operating Officer of Digital Commerce Solutions, Pitney Bowes.

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