Wal-Mart's Web store and Toysrus.com have posted disclaimers on their sites saying they can't promise items ordered now will be delivered in time for Christmas. eToys says that orders placed through its Web store after tonight must be express shipped to make it to customers by Dec. 24.
In addition, customers who place orders on Amazon.com, Target.com, Macys.com and Buy.com after tomorrow will have to request second-day or express shipping if they want to receive their packages before Christmas.
"We expected e-tailers to shut down (holiday sales) later this week," Seema Williams, an e-commerce analyst at Forrester Research, said in an interview. "This is happening a little bit earlier than expected."
The soon-to-expire shipping deadlines come as some e-tailers are already fighting to shore up depleting inventories. Online toy stores such as Amazon.com and KBkids.com are already out of some of the season's hottest toys, including the Amazing Ally doll and select Pokemon games for Nintendo's Game Boy.
Forrester Research estimates that 8.6 million households will shop online this holiday season, spending roughly $4 billion, up from $1.5 billion last year, making this a record holiday shopping season online. But industry analysts say last-minute shoppers could be disappointed by the lack of choices online, and e-tailers could miss out on significant holiday sales.
"For the last-minute shopper, many online sites may not provide the solution they need, and they will likely turn to traditional retailers," Liz Leonard, e-commerce analyst with Gomez Advisors, said in an interview.
For its part, Wal-Mart placed a shipping warning on its site late last week, apologizing to customers for "any inconvenience." Company spokeswoman Melissa Berryhill said the company's note marked good customer service.
"We felt we owed it to our customers to be honest with them," Berryhill said. "We didn't want to mislead them or let them down."
Toysrus.com stopped accepting Christmas orders for standard delivery Friday, and it will stop accepting express orders today. A Toysrus.com representative said the company's holiday sales have been far greater than its expectations, and it wanted to make sure that customers who had already placed orders got them in time for Christmas.
"We pretty much have made a long-term business decision to honor our existing customers' orders, instead of flooding ourselves with orders that we can't meet," the representative said. "We'd rather forego the extra revenue and make sure everyone's happy."
Early shipping deadlines may have more to do with fulfillment systems at many of the online retailers than any problems with shippers such as FedEx or UPS. Some Web stores have been so inundated with orders that they are having trouble simply putting products into boxes and getting them ready to ship.
"In many cases, the demand is there, but the supply is not nearly ready to accommodate the demand," said Mike May, digital commerce analyst with Jupiter Communications.
Gomez's Leonard applauded sites for letting customers know about their shipping deadlines, saying that it was an improvement from past practices. The worst thing a site could do is to promise prompt delivery for Christmas and then not do so, she said.
"Consumers across the board will value knowing up front whether a product is or is not available" in time for Christmas, Leonard said.
But Leonard and others said sites could disappoint last-minute shoppers. "If anything, the consumers that ended up being turned away may be turned off to online shopping next holiday season," Williams said.
And May said that sites that can't cater to last-minute shoppers are going to be missing out. "Sites that have to effectively shut down well before the holidays are leaving money on the table," he said.
Despite the impending shipping deadlines, online shoppers aren't completely out of options. Some e-tailers such as same-day delivery service Kozmo.com will accept last-minute orders. Others including Land's End allow customers to place orders up until Dec. 22 for Christmas delivery. Online gift site Red Envelope says it will take orders placed on its 911 Gifts store on Dec. 23 until midnight, and will deliver them by noon on Christmas Eve.
E-tail giant Amazon has a range of deadlines for its shipments. The leading e-tailer says that items that are available in one to two weeks can no longer be shipped in time for Christmas. Items that are available in two to three days will be shipped in time for Christmas only if they are sent via second-day or next-day air. The company says items that are available within 24 hours can be sent via standard shipping until tomorrow and still arrive by Dec. 24.