eBay has been pushing free shipping pretty hard lately with promotions, discounts, special icons and other advantages designed to get sellers to offer free shipping. Whether this is a good idea for anyone is still up for debate, but if eBay is moving towards more free shipping, there are a few things they need to do if they want us sellers to be able to do business effectively and still offer free shipping. The current engine for free shipping operates like a sloppy, poorly thought out add-on that only ends up overcharging customers and we need to fix that if free shipping is here to stay.

At present, if you want to offer free shipping, you select a checkbox in the shipping calculator section of the Sell Your Item Form that states “free shipping.” This automatically makes the shipping option of your choice free and leaves all other shipping options at their full price (plus the handling fee that you specify). This gives you any discounts that eBay is offering that week, a special Free Shipping icon, placement in their free shipment promotions, etc. But what it doesn’t do is do this is a way that makes any sense from a business standpoint.

If I am offering free shipping on an item, that is because I have already increased the price of said item to cover the shipping costs. (Free shipping, it may come as a surprise to some buyers and eBay policy makers, is only free to the buyer. Though we do not bill them for shipping, the seller still has to pay the shipping costs to the postal carrier in these instances so it’s built into the cost of the item). For the sake of an example, let’s say that the item I am offering today is $12.99 with free shipping but the shipping actually costs me $3 for the cheapest option. Prior to free shipping, I would have sold this item for $9.99 with $3 shipping but I want the extra eBay advantages so I am offering it this way instead to get the benefits of free shipping. The savvy shopper knows that $9.99 with $3 shipping and $12.99 with free shipping are the exact same price.

If you buy that item from me and select free shipping, you are essentially getting a savings of $3. But what if you are an international buyer or someone who wants a faster shipping method? The way the eBay shipping calculator is set up now, you would have to pay me the full price of either expedited or international shipping. Suddenly, you are paying the same shipping costs for my item at $12.99 as you did for it at $9.99 so all your prices are $3 GREATER per item.

If expedited shipping is $5 and international shipping is $10 suddenly you are paying $17.99 or $22.99 total for an item it used to cost you $14.99 or $19.99 total for. Well over half my eBay sales are international and, at the holidays, many are expedited. Suddenly, eBay’s insistence on free shipping is, rather than giving my customers a savings, costing them more per item.

Now, if you were to actually purchase an item from my store with free shipping, you would notice that I have gotten around this issue by offering a discounted rate on international and expedited shipping on options with a free shipping feature so that the savings are same all the around and also offering a second version of this listing at the original price plus shipping. But this has be done manually as a flat rate shipping cost and defeats the entire purpose of the innovation that is the eBay shipping calculator. By setting a flat rate, though, I am still overcharging some people because I have to base even my discounted rates on the highest possible shipping cost for that method so some zones and countries are getting overcharged.

Either way you look at it, as is, the free shipping discourages international sales and expedited sales. (Put another way, it encourages people to take the slow, free shipping method and then leave low DSRs when their items don’t arrive next day. In a weird way, free shipping = low DSRs).

Why not give us the capacity to offer a discount off of shipping, operating like the handling fee, in reverse? For the item above, I would specify $3 off as the discount and the cheapest shipping would be free with all other options discounted this same $3. Then my buyers aren’t getting overcharged, you can advertise the item internationally as having discounted shipping and I can actually use the shipping calculator instead of manually setting up flat rate discounts.

Free shipping also throws another wrench into the process when doing combined shipping discounts. The combined shipping settings on eBay leave much to be desired which is a little strange when you consider that the PayPal buttons have had this better handled for a while.

Instead of flat settings that are store wide, eBay needs to give us item profiles. For instance, for the profile of “media” I could offer, only pay shipping on the first one but all additional items are free and then for a profile of “Concrete Bricks” I could specify that they have to pay the shipping cost for the total weight, etc. The way the system is now, discounts are all or nothing. This means that some of my buyers are highly overcharged by eBay’s calculator and others are getting a ridiculously good deal and don’t even realize it. (I’m not selling bricks, I was just trying to think of something heavy. Don’t be so literal, jeez! ;-))

Free shipping makes this even harder when buyers want to add items to a free shipping order and shipping is suddenly double because the combined shipping discount makes the original order “un-free.” While we can correct this in the invoice we send to the buyer if we notice in time, sometimes they pay before we get the chance and we get dinged on shipping costs that were the invention of the eBay shipping calculator.

In short, the eBay Shipping Calculator is not equipped to handle free shipping for the reasons above and more that I am sure others have found. If free shipping in the way of the future, what tools will you give us to be able to handle it better?

If eBay is going to keep this around, what should they offer that would make it easier for you to offer free shipping? Weight in below with your complaints with how free shipping works now and how you would fix it.