Price: $79/year, 1-mo. free trial available
The plan: Prime members receive free two-day shipping on any product sold by Amazon with no minimum purchase required. (Prime does not apply to third-party vendors or Amazon Marketplace, a glaring omission.) Prime users can also pay $3.99 for one-day shipping. Prime membership may be shared with up to four family members.
How you save: Amazon Prime is one of the oldest all-you-can-eat shipping programs, and it's also the most popular. That's because it applies to literally millions of products, and it gets it there fast (two-day shipping at Amazon normally goes for $10 and up). With Amazon Prime, you suddenly have free shipping on all of those little things you see listed on dealnews: food, DVDs, kitchen gadgets, toys, trinkets, and so on.
However, before you jump on the bandwagon, be aware of some of the negatives. Amazon Prime rarely applies to products sold by third-party vendors, which constitute millions of its listings. You can often take advantage of Amazon's Free Super Saver Shipping, which applies to items of $25 or more, by grouping items or "padding" an order. ($79 is a lot of padding per year.) Because it competes against Amazon's standard shipping offer, we estimate that Prime pays for itself in about 16 orders for the typical user. (That's a lot.)
The plan: Receive free standard shipping with no minimum purchase required. (Wine club shipments and cellar purchases are excluded from free shipping.)
How you save: Shipping at wine.com is $9.95 per order + $1.25 per bottle. As a result, it's very easy to use Ship-Vantage to your benefit. If you make at least 5 single purchases from wine.com per year, you've already paid for the $49 fee in shipping charges. A potential downside is that Wine.com's prices for the wine itself can be a bit high, unless the item is on sale. A more obvious downside is that local laws prevent Wine.com from shipping to many states. Still, once including shipping, Steward-Ship pays for itself on your fifth order.
The plan: ShipVantage members receive free ground shipping with no minimum purchase required. Plus, get two-day shipping for 99 cents and overnight shipping for $3.99. Shipping rates only apply to items mailed via USPS, UPS, or FedEx. (Products will be marked in your shopping cart when eligible.) Items that require home delivery, such as refrigerators, washers, dryers, stoves, gas grills, mattresses, fitness equipment, and projection TVs are not applicable.
How you save: ShipVantage is a great deal for the frequent Sears or Kmart shopper. However, if you only purchase from Sears/Kmart once every season, or if you only buy major appliances from them, you'll want to pass. We figure most people will need to place about 10 orders per year to take advantage.
Something else that takes away the mojo from this program is unique to Sears in this group: You can pick up most items for free at a local store. We figure one of the most likely users of ShipVantage is the home improvement guru who wants to take advantage of all of the 50% off Craftsman tool sales. However, we figure that those people are always driving to and from Home Depot and can stop by Sears on the way (to save $79/year).
SmartBargains SmartShoppers Club
The plan: The SmartShoppers Club offers its members a flat $2.95 standard shipping fee on any order. If more than two items are in your cart, you'll be charged an additional $1 per item. In addition to a reduced shipping fee, the program offers a members-only customer service line and instant notification of new arrivals and clearance sales.
How you save: Without SmartShoppers Club, SmartBargains charges a flat shipping fee of $9.95. That means that you only need to place two orders per year at SmartBargains to save money with the SmartShoppers Club.
Overstock.com Club O
The plan: Club O offers free shipping on every order and 5% off on select orders. In addition, members get exclusive access to sales and promotions.
How you save: At $2.95, Overstock.com already has one of the lowest shipping fees around. Plus, Overstock.com usually has at least one free shipping promotion each month. As for 5% off, there are frequently Overstock coupons that yield better discounts that 5%. As a result, even though it's fairly inexpensive, you're better off skipping Club O. If you take advantage of its regular promotions, we figure it'll take you 15 orders or more per year to eek out savings from Club O.
In the end, Overstock.com's Club O was our least favorite shipping program, solely because of the store's already-low shipping fees. Sears' ShipVantage also failed to win us over, especially since in-store pickup is free and ShipVantage doesn't apply to major appliances, the kind of thing you associate with Sears.
In contrast, Wine.com's Ship-Vantage and SmartBargains' SmartShopper Club both stood out as great deals for both casual to heavy fans of those sites. We're a tad reluctant to recommend SmartShopper Club because none of us know anyone who's ever ordered more than once per year from SmartBargains. (We know plenty of winos however.)
As for Amazon Prime, there's no question that it's the broadest program, it applies to the most products, and it's the most useful on a daily basis. But be warned: You'll use it far more than you intended, buying items you don't need, muttering under your breath, "Only $5. And free shipping via Prime. Why not!"
Louis Ramirez is dealnews' Features editor.