Perhaps in a nod to how many people are shopping later, Internet and catalog retailers are catering more this year to procrastinators. Some 28 percent of merchants are offering a Dec. 20 order deadline or later for guaranteed Christmas delivery with standard shipping, according to the National Retail Federation. Nearly half -- 46 percent -- plan to offer special discounts on express shipping next week, according to a survey released yesterday by the NRF and BizRate.com.
Many, however, do a poor job of disclosing their shipping fees.
Some play down deadlines and exclusions in fine print, or require you to place items in your cart before they tell you the delivery fee. To be fair, some do that because their shipping charges are based on weight, not purchase price. Others, such as Amazon.com and Kohls.com, charge a base delivery fee and tack on extra fees for each included item.
Deadlines can be tricky, too, because the time of day varies so widely. Neiman Marcus is offering free shipping on all orders over $150, but the fine print discloses it actually ends at 1 p.m. Central on Dec. 16 -- noon here on the East Coast.
Big Internet malls are catering to those who are late to venture online. Yahoo's last-minute gift center and the "Procrastination Central" on Microsoft's MSN both list deadlines for guaranteed Christmas delivery at various sites.
But the charts can be misleading if you don't click through to the fine print. RadioShack.com seems to be offering free shipping on all orders over $25 through Dec. 22, but in fact the free shipping applies only to ground shipping and expires at 9 a.m. Eastern on Dec. 17. And when I called customer service to find out more details on Tuesday, the phone rep said the real deadline for guaranteed holiday delivery had already passed.
"Our ground-shipping department is kind of getting stacked up now, and they aren't sure they can get it all out in time," she explained. She offered to cut the $20 expedited shipping fee for second-day air in half but said the offer would be available only on phone orders, not online.
Customer service can sometimes be confusing. I struck up a live online text chat with a customer service representative on Overstock.com yesterday, trying to determine the deadline for guaranteed Christmas delivery if I took advantage of $2.95 shipping. The rep told me the cutoff was next Thursday at midnight. Later I saw that the Web site clearly states it is Wednesday night.
Lots of sites will give you free shipping next week but will not guarantee Christmas delivery. Gap.com, for instance, offers free shipping on orders over $75 through Dec. 31, with a Dec. 20 cutoff for guaranteed Christmas delivery. Among the merchants that will let you pay for standard shipping as late as next Monday and guarantee Dec. 24 delivery are Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble.
BestBuy.com has a Sunday cutoff for standard shipping, but its fees are significantly higher than those of many rivals, probably because it is pushing in-store pickup, the better to sell you more merchandise when you get there.
Buying online may be largely impractical by the middle of next week, but you can still use the Internet for research. Services such as Shopping.com and Shopzilla help people compare products online; Cairo.com can pinpoint where they are on sale offline.
"The opportunity to use online stops five or six days before Christmas, but the deals and the sales don't stop," said Cairo chief executive Andy Moss.
Another option may be the electronic gift card, which can be purchased Christmas morning and e-mailed to your recipient from the likes of Amazon.com and BarnesandNoble.com.
Leslie Walker's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.