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Free Shipping "Gotchas"

Is free shipping really free?

It can be, but before you can qualify for it, you have to overcome obstacles many retailers have in place that could prevent you from qualifying for the very free shipping they advertise, AOL Consumer Adviser Regina Lewis said on "The Early Show" Thursday.

So, she stresses, if you plan to do your holiday shopping online, be sure you read the fine print to assure you indeed get free shipping.

"About 80 percent of e-tailers say they'll offer free shipping at some point," Lewis told co-anchor Maggie Rodriguez. " 'At some point' generally means sooner, rather than later.

"Here's why: The big players - the Walmarts, Target, Best Buy, Sears, JCPenneys of the world, are all offering free shipping now. They are able to negotiate really good standard shipping rates. Later in the game, they have to pay the UPS and FedExes of the world a premium. They're less likely to absorb that. They're gonna pass that cost along to you."

Even when they are offering free shipping, Lewis says, upon closer examination, those highly-advertised offers come with plenty of fine print surprises.

Among the most common:

- Some retailers make you ship to and pick up at one of their stores

- Some retailers require you have to know the correct code to get the free shipping

- Sometimes, you only get free shipping if you spend at least a certain amount of money

- And " "the biggie" - Only certain items qualify for free shipping -- so not everything is eligible

You also have to be careful about returns, Lewis points out. You may have the option to buy online and return at a store.

Or you may be provided with a prepaid return envelope. Be careful. Prepaid doesn't mean you don't pay. Some retailers deduct the cost of returning an item from the refund you get for it.

Still, there are certainly good deals to be found online.

Among them:

- Free gift card with a purchase at LL Bean

- Hourly deals at Banana Republic

- $25 off a $100 buy at Sports Authority and Office Depot

- Twenty percent off select items at Pottery Barn, K Mart and Kohl's

- Also: Check out MyGiftWithPurchase.com

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