It seems like Black Friday happened just yesterday, but nearly a month has passed, and there are a mere five shopping days left until Christmas.
Despite best-laid plans, Christmas shopping can slip through cracks amid the onslaught of holiday parties, travel arrangements, and school pageants. If the space under your Christmas tree is looking a little bare, you aren't alone: Only 11.3 percent of shoppers had all of their gifts bought as of Dec. 13, according to a survey from the National Retail Federation. But don’t panic just yet, procrastinators: There’s still a little bit of time, even if you want to avoid the crowds and do your shopping from your computer. But you'd better hurry.
Dec. 21, Friday, is the last reliable day to purchase gifts online, says Dan de Grandpre, founder and CEO of dealnews.com, a site that tracks sales and provides money-saving tips to shoppers. “Most sites have shipping deadlines, and that’s the most consistent day,” he says. “ Some are earlier, and some go as late as the 23rd . But the majority are the 21st .”
The deals site fatwallet.com offers a comprehensive holiday shipping deadline guide for hundreds of retail sites, ranging from Dec. 16 to two days before Christmas. For more serious slow pokes, offers.com has a handy list of stores open on Christmas Eve, and their hours. Most stores are open until 6 p.m., but a few are open later: Kmart closes at 10 p.m., and Target is open until 9 p.m. The only national retailer open on Christmas Day is Walgreens, open all day or for limited hours, depending on location.
What to avoid
That said, there are some types of gifts, and sites, that you should avoid when working under a tight deadline. For one, large items – major appliances, televisions, and furniture – are problematic because of longer shipping times. “They ship by freight, and those can never ship overnight,” Mr. DeGrandpre says.
Another bad idea: anything customizable. This includes gifts that are engraved or monogrammed, plus items that include personal photos. “These just take more time to make. Plus if there’s a typo in the thing that you ordered, you won’t have time to get it fixed,” according to DeGrandpre.
That applies to less obvious gifts as well, like computers that need to be configured with specific settings like added memory.
As for the websites themselves, avoid retailers with business models that make for unreliable shipping timelines. DeGrandpre points to discount designer and flash sale sites, such as Gilt, Fab.com, and Groupon. “Most of the time those sites don’t warehouse themselves. So they have two rounds of shipping, which takes at least 10 days,” he says.
Also, stay away from online marketplaces for independent merchants, like Etsy, he adds. "It’s great [normally], but it’s a bunch of really small companies with no infrastructure. I wouldn’t buy anything next week from there.“
Certain larger store are better than others. “Target and Kohls are good in store, but they are terrible to ship from, because they are slow at getting products out of their warehouses,” DeGrandpre says. “You can pay extra for next day shipping, but it doesn't matter if it takes too long to process it. You won't get them before Christmas.”
One of the trickier sites for shipping, strangely enough, is Amazon, which DeGrandpre calls “the best and worst site for last-minute shippers.” Items shipped by Amazon itself arrive reliably quickly, and the site offers two-day shipping up until 7 p.m. Dec. 21. But the same can’t be said for the thousands of merchants that sell their wares through Amazon Marketplace. Those aren’t as reliable, because so many items are sold through a third party. “Amazon doesn’t work very hard to tell you that. It’s a lot like eBay now.”
To ensure fast shipping, make sure what you’re buying is being shipped through Amazon, and not through another Amazon user. This can take a few extra clicks.
What to buy
Happily, there is a bit of good news for the procrastinators among us. The closer it gets to Christmas, the cheaper Christmas-themed gifts become. It’s also a good time to buy items that, for whatever reason, haven’t sold particularly well during the initial holiday shopping rush. Certain toys become heavily discounted late. This year early winter has been fairly warm, so there are deals to be had on winter apparel. And while the discounts wont’ be as steep as they will be in January and February, the selection won’t be as picked over.
The best places to shop? Luxury department stores and their websites – places like Saks, Lord & Taylor, and Barneys New York. Many offer free shipping with no minimum purchase, and free expedited shipping as Christmas day draws near. Free shipping is also one of the only sales incentives offered by high-end jewelry stores, like Tiffany’s. But a caveat: Christmas is among the most expensive times of year to buy jewelry, up there with Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day.
Even for the worst procrastinators among us, there is one gift idea better than an I.O.U., or a photograph of an item you meant to buy on time: travel. “You just need to find a clever way to deliver it, DeGrandpre says. “I did that once myself. I booked a Caribbean vacation on Christmas Eve and put my wife’s bikini in a box. It’s the ultimate procrastinator’s gift.”