The last day, on average, to shop online with guaranteed delivery for the holidays is this Sunday, Dec. 17, according to Internet researcher Gomez, which surveyed more than 60 top online stores based on their standard shipping policy.
But don't count on pinning anybody down on exact dates.
Most sites have detailed instructions on what products will ship when, taking into consideration goods that are in stock and whether they can be shipped within 24 hours, or in three to five days. The costs vary widely--from free to price prohibitive--based on different deadlines as well, from standard to overnight and next-day shipping, giving last-minute shoppers some solace in the wee time before Dec. 25.
"If you want it there on time, you can get it there, but it will cost you," said Jeff Quinn, a retail analyst at Gomez.
At Buy.com, the deadline for holiday delivery on standard shipments has already passed. Orders had to have been placed last Tuesday to get there by Dec. 22. But shoppers can still pay for two-day air shipping (up to $10) by Monday to get it there by next week.
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eToys lets shoppers buy until Dec. 18 for standard shipping and till midnight Dec. 20 to receive gifts express. Wal-Mart is also promising delivery by the holiday if shoppers order by Dec. 20 for express shipping. Barnes&Noble.com's final day to order goods in stock for holiday delivery is Monday.
The varying "guarantees" underscore the importance of deliveries and happy customers this year. Online stores are struggling to buff their reputations after a few bad apples spoiled the barrel last year by failing to deliver gifts before the holiday or guaranteeing inventory that wasn't available.
"The problem last year was that Web sites underestimated the complexity of delivering and preparing the order for delivery," said Dennis Spina, chief executive for SubmitOrder, which handles fulfillment for such sites as BlueLight.com, ZanyBrainy.com and the Museum Company.
"Web sites are much more robust than last year, and e-commerce companies are ready for the additional business that we're getting this year," he said.
Lovers of sausage and cheeses can get same-day delivery via Hickoryfarms.com's newly announced service. The food company will deliver select gifts in more than 700 cities for under $10.
Kozmo.com is also guaranteeing gift delivery, even on goods ordered Dec. 25. The convenience-store site, which offers specialty items such as electronics and fine watches, said it will deliver in the 11 cities it operates in for less than the cost to send a FedEx or UPS letter.
Ashford.com is going so far as promising Dec. 25 delivery on orders placed Christmas Eve, possible through a deal with FedEx.
In some cases, online outfits with a Main Street store have an edge over pure-plays. Circuit City, for example, offers holiday shopping on the Web until Dec. 24 for customers who want to pick up goods in a local store. But for holiday deliveries through standard shipping, Thursday was the last day to buy.