More online, less time for shipping: Ten ways holiday shopping is different in 2014

It's time to start thinking about the holidays and you may note some significant differences between this holiday shopping season and last year's. While in-store shopping is steadily decreasing, online shopping this year will increase with earlier shipping and more purchases from smartphones. 

AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes/File
Shoppers Manuel Orellano, center, with his daughter Marcela, left, and her son Manuel, 6, shop for children's clothing at JCPenney at the Glendale Galleria shopping mall in Glendale, Calif. According to the annual National Retail Federation's Holiday Consumer Spending Survey, more people will be shopping online than in-store.

Shoppers, take note: Although there was one more day between Thanksgiving and Christmas this year, it's still considered a "short" holiday season, with five fewer days than in 2012. That means it's time to start thinking about the holidays!

There are some significant differences between this holiday shopping season and last year's. Here are some other things to keep in mind, whether you're buying last-minute gifts online, filling up your gas tank to travel, or considering a holiday gift for the mail carrier.

More People Will Shop Online Than Ever Before

It shouldn't come as a surprise that even more people are doing a bigger percentage of their holiday shopping online. The average shopper will do 44% of his or her total shopping online this year, according to the annual National Retail Federation's Holiday Consumer Spending Survey. And while 51.5% of shoppers last year reported that they planned to shop online at all, 56% will shop online this year, the most in the survey's 13-year history.

In fact, in-store shopping has been steadily decreasing, from 38 billion "visits" in November and December in 2010 to 17 billion last year, though overall sales increased in the same time frame from $681 to $783 billion. This year, the NRF found that shoppers are expected to spend more on gifts this year, on everyone from their families to their co-workers to their pets.

More Mobile (Wallet Optional)

While one-third of tablet owners will make purchases from their devices, a record high of 19.1% smartphone owners reported they would use their smartphones to make purchases this year.

Mobile phones have also become increasingly important to shoppers in stores — and it's not just to document epic retail freakouts. According to the NRF data, 35.8% percent of smartphone shoppers use their phones to research products and prices, while a Google/Nielsen study found that 93% of those shoppers proceed to make a purchase, usually in a store. In fact, one-third of respondents in a Google study said they would use their phones to find the information they need rather than asking a store employee. You'll also see more phones at the cash registers with 23.9% of shoppers using phones to redeem coupons, while 30% will use phones to pay for items with Apple Pay and Google Wallet.

Packages Will Arrive 7 Days a Week

Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night — nor the arrival of Sunday — will stay United States Postal Service couriers from the swift completion of their appointed holiday season rounds this year.

If you're in one of the areas where the USPS delivers Amazon packages on Sundays, the sight of postal trucks might not seem so unusual. Amazon struck a deal in November 2013 with the USPS to deliver packages daily in New York and Los Angeles, expanding to more than 20 areas throughout 2014. But in early November, the Postal Service announced it would deliver packages seven days a week — not just those from Amazon — in major cities and high-volume areas through Christmas Day. The holiday schedule is in response to an expected 12% growth in the volume of shipped packages, estimated to reach 450 to 470 million this holiday season.

Earlier Shipping Deadlines (and Hopefully Less Empty Stockings)

Procrastinators, take note: About 79% of retailers will set deadlines for guaranteed Christmas delivery at least a week before the holiday, up from 74% in 2013, according to a Shop.org survey. Just 21% will allow online shoppers to purchase an item to be delivered in time for Christmas after December 19, down from 26% last year.

While that means you'll need to place your orders a bit earlier this year, the deadline shift by retailers in turn ensures that deliveries will make it to the destination in time for Christmas, so there won't be empty spaces under the tree, like last year. In 2013, UPS and FedEx were overwhelmed by last-minute holiday orders and bad weather, leaving thousands of shoppers without the gifts they'd ordered. (UPS is also hiring more seasonal employees this year to make sure the delays don't happen again.)

If you do wait until the last minute, however, one in five companies surveyed by the NRF are planning to offer free or expedited shipping that will extend the shopping deadline until December 23.

Earlier Shipping, Earlier Shipping Deals

"Shoppers could start looking for those shipping offers sooner rather than later this year," says Pam Goodfellow, principal analyst at Prosper Insights & Analytics, which conducted the Shop.org survey.

If you're scouring shopping sites for early free shipping deals, you're not alone. According to a comScore survey, 83% of shoppers would rather wait a few extra days for shipping if it were free.

Pretty Much Everything is Earlier This Year

The first holiday-themed ad this year can probably be tracked back to Kmart's amusing layaway spot in August, bringing Christmas into the summer. Holiday shopping has also been heavily linked to Black Friday (84% of our readers planed to buy gifts during the shopping event), and even that event has morphed into a full season, with sales starting in mid-October. Basically, this year, we've been shopping for the holidays for weeks already.

Lower Gas Prices and More Travel

According to the AAA Thanksgiving 2014 Travel Forecast, more than 46.3 million Americans were expected to travel Thanksgiving weekend — the most since 2007. "We're seeing higher consumer optimism, GDP growth and improvements in the labor market," says Julie Hall, the AAA National Office Public Relations Manager. While air travel at Thanksgiving was at the highest level since 2007, airfare prices were 1% higher.

There's also another big factor for increased travel: lower gas prices. Thanksgiving travelers were projected to pay the lowest prices for gas in the past five years and 43 cents lower than the average 2013 price, and that should translate to the Christmas time frame as well. "While we can't yet predict travel for the year-end holidays, these economic conditions are certainly playing a big role in Americans' decisions to travel at this point in the holiday season," Hall says.

More Gaming Console Deals

The holiday frenzy for the latest gaming consoles can get pretty intense. Last year we didn't see deals for the brand-new Xbox One and PlayStation 4, but this year we've seen plenty of discounts for Black Friday. This in turn bodes well for December, so this might be the year to put that console on your holiday wishlist!

More Gift Card-Giving

Gift cards are the most requested gift item for the eighth year in a row, according to the NRF. There's good news for the 62% of those planning to ask for gift cards this year: Physical and digital gift cards are expected to reach an all-time high this season.

Increased Spirit of Giving (Really!)

According to the NRF survey, shoppers report they will be spending less on themselves this year — reversing a "self-gifting" trend — and instead will focus buying gifts for others. It's not exactly The Gift of the Magi, but it's nice to hear at this time of year.

Meanwhile, some things will remain the same this season: great TV deals, massive eggnog consumption, and your Mom telling everyone about that time you were two and you ran through the mall naked. As for everything else, a little preparation can ensure that you avoid that madness and intercept the best deals possible.

Josie Rubio is a contributing writer for dealnews.com, where this article first appeared. 

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