It's the thought, not the timing

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Hey all you procrastinators.

You know who you are.

The ones who start your Christmas shopping 24 hours before the actual gift-giving begins.

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Sales clerks call you the "just-in-time" crowd. You've even been spotted begging mall security to let you in after closing.

Well, save the grovelling for another season. This is the year for you.

To capitalize on the frenetic pace of the American way of life, most catalog retailers now offer express holiday delivery.

For a few extra bucks, you can order that sweater or DVD player as late as Dec. 23 and it will arrive on time.

"You'd be hard-pressed to find a catalog that doesn't offer this service," says Scott Krugman, a spokesman for the National Retail Federation in Washington.

"People are very busy. It's difficult to find the time to do your shopping. Retailers understand this," says Mr. Krugman, a last-minute shopper himself.

"When I get a catalog that says, 'We guarantee delivery by this date,' I'm relieved. I know I don't have to panic."

He's hardly alone.

Nine out of 10 people plan to shop at the last minute this holiday season, says one survey. (See item, bottom, right.)

The survey also found that half of holiday shopping procrastinators put the people closest to them (spouses, parents, relatives) at the bottom of their gift lists.

Enter express delivery, which means: No more excuses (that means you, guys).

For example:

* Hickory Farms (www.hickoryfarms.com) in Maumee, Ohio, guarantees delivery by Christmas on all orders placed as late as noon (EST) Dec. 24.

For a $25 shipping charge, it will express everything from a beef and cheese gift basket to an entire turkey or ham dinner with all the trimmings.

* Lands' End (www.landsend.com) guarantees delivery by Christmas on all orders placed by midnight (EST) Dec. 23. Last year the company received 20,000 calls on that day.

Not surprisingly, most want their items gift boxed, and they have special drop-off instructions, says spokeswoman Anna Schryver, such as, "Please do not leave in yard. Dogs will tear apart."

* Lilliput, which sells toys and collectibles, based in Yerington, Nev. (more than 90 miles from the Reno airport), guarantees Christmas delivery on orders received by 4 p.m. (EST) Dec. 23.

What you often risk by waiting until the last min-ute is selection. (See story, top right.) Still, procrastinating doesn't make shoppers any less picky.

L.L. Bean in Freeport, Maine, turned around a last-minute order for 10,000 mint dog balls one year. It also gets a few urgent orders for entire Christmas trees.

To keep up with the holiday demand, United Parcel Service has hired an extra 90,000 holiday workers nationwide.

For both UPS and Federal Express, the busiest time of the year is the three days before Christmas. On Fedex's busiest night last year, it handled nearly 4 million packages - about a million more than a regular day's load.

UPS estimates that on Dec. 22 alone it will ship more than 4 million packages via Air Express - up from 3.5 million last year.

Some argue that the dawning of the Internet, fax machines, and high-speed deliveries has helped perpetuate procrastination.

"The influence of this speedy communication world we live in has put people into later and later buying [habits]," says John Crawford, a partner at Collin Street Bakery (www.collinstreetbakery.com) in Corsicana, Texas, renowned for its pecan fruitcake. The company annually ships 1.6 million cakes for Christmas.

Last year on Dec. 22, the company overnighted 500 fruitcakes - each to a different address - for one of its top customers.

"We're now waiting for the same guy to give us this year's list," Mr. Crawford concedes. "We're on pins and needles.

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