Shoppers Beware: Your Deadline for Online Christmas Orders Is Earlier This Year

December 15, 2016, 4:02 PM UTC
Operations Inside An Inc. Fulfillment Center On Cyber Monday
Boxes move along a conveyor belt inside an Inc. fulfillment center in Robbinsville, New Jersey, U.S., on Monday, Nov. 28, 2016. In 2005, retailers coined the term "Cyber Monday" to describe a surge in web purchases on the first work day after Thanksgiving by people who had spent the weekend browsing in stores. Now, increasing number of online shoppers, particularly those buying over their phones, are skipping the stores entirely. Photographer: David Williams/Bloomberg via Getty Images
David Williams — Bloomberg via Getty Images

Christmas procrastinators, take heed.

Many major retailers, including Kohl’s (KSS) and J.C. Penney (JCP), have set the deadline earlier this year for placing an order and being sure it gets delivered by Christmas, in a move aimed in part at handling the record volume of packages retailers and shippers expect to handle.

StellaService data released this week shows that only four retailers (Apple (AAPL), Nordstrom (JWN), HBC’s (HBC) Saks Fifth Avenue and Office Depot (ODP)) among those the data firm tracks are letting shoppers place orders as late as Dec. 22 or 23 (next Thursday and Friday) for onetime delivery via standard shipping, compared to 12 last year.

The changes come as online sales are poised to grow 11% this holiday season, according to Adobe Digital Insights and retailers, and as shippers like FedEx (FDX) and UPS (UPS) seek to avoid overloading their ability to deliver packages up until the Christmas deadline. The shopping behavior change is already plain for all to see: The National Retail Federation estimated that almost 109 million people went shopping online over Black Friday weekend, compared to 98 million store-goers.


But the timing of Christmas this year is also likely to add stress to shipping infrastructure: Christmas falls on a Sunday, meaning that this coming weekend is the last full one during which people can shop in stores ahead of Christmas Day on Dec. 25. And so retailers expect many panicked last minute shoppers to turn to online shopping in those very final days. What’s more, as many retailers have noted, the election and its immediate aftermath led to a later start to holiday shopping, compressing the peak of the shopping season.

UPS is expecting to handle 14% more packages, while FedEx sees volume rising 10% and the U.S. Postal Service, 12%. All this signals potential disaster if there is some event like a snowstorm at one of their hubs. So best to get retailers to nudge shoppers to get moving earlier. This week, (WMT) Walmart set a cut off of 6 p.m. on Dec. 23 for retrieving online orders in stores anytime on Christmas Eve, a move intended in part to shift more e-commerce logistics to its stores.

What retailers and shippers alike want to avoid is a repeat of 2013, when snafus and bad weather caused UPS to miss delivering two million packages by Christmas, earning the company lumps of coal in its stocking. And with Amazon’s dominance of online shopping, brick and mortar stores can ill afford any delays.


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