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Tech Industry

Net offers little hope for late shoppers

Most sites will take guaranteed gift orders only through tomorrow, leaving shoppers with few choices as Christmas looms.

    Data may move across the Net at blazing speeds, but when it comes to moving holiday gifts, it's still up to planes, trains, and automobiles.

    Last-minute holiday shoppers are discovering that harsh reality this week as they log on to the Net in desperation, hoping to have holiday gifts delivered in Internet time. Most often, those hopes are dashed.

    Either it's too late for guaranteed shipment or online retailers are out of stock.

    Even the savviest of Internet shoppers are learning too late that the Net can't make up for procrastination. "I swore to myself I was going to buy all my gifts online this year," said Outpost.com CEO Darryl Peck, speaking on his cellphone today as he drove to his local Toys 'R' Us outlet.

    "I was going to buy from [online retailer] eToys. But here I am."

    Maybe because he knows first-hand how procrastinators think, Peck is offering perhaps the best chance for last-minute online shoppers. Outpost.com, which sells computers, software, and peripherals, will take orders through midnight Eastern time tomorrow for guaranteed overnight delivery on Christmas Eve.

    And, unlike most other sites, shipping charges are minimal: only $6 for a software purchase. Peck said he can offer cheap, speedy shipping thanks in part to the fact that his inventory is located near the main hub of Airborne Express, Outpost.com's carrier in Wilmington, Ohio.

    But those shopping for the non-computer geek may be out of luck. Even Federal Express can't match Outpost.com. Customers dropping packages off at a FedEx shipping agent must do so by tomorrow to ensure on-time delivery, said spokeswoman Sally Davenport.

    Nonetheless, FedEx expects to do as well this year as any other year. Procrastination, she said, "is our friend. We invented this business based on it."

    Sites such as bookseller Amazon.com, music retailer CDNow, and consumer electronics vendor 800.com will stop taking holiday orders tomorrow. But on all those sites, customers can buy gift certificates and instantly email them, even on Christmas Day.

    Even if shoppers are quick enough to make purchases in time for shipment, they may find that the items they are looking for are out of stock. "Some items have been unavailable," said Amazon spokesman Bill Curry. He noted, however that the site's ten best-selling books are all still in stock, as are the ten best-selling personal electronics items.

    Movie retailer Reel.com says it has most popular items in stock, but it stopped taking guaranteed Christmas orders today. "We were going to stop last Friday, but when we saw that a lot of people still wanted gifts, we extended it," said president Chris Deyo. "It's amazing how many people are doing their shopping late."