Retailers, USPS warn of shipping delays: To be 'safe,' order holiday gifts by this date

Ordering gifts online by this date gives you 'a good, safe chunk of time,' says one expert.


If you wait until the last minute to do your online holiday shopping this year and you don't get your package on time, be prepared to hear, "I told you so." As the busiest week for holiday shopping gets underway, major retailers such as Target, as well as the U.S. Postal Service, have warned of potential delays.

You can probably guess what's causing the hold up. With much of the in-person retail economy reeling from the Covid-19 pandemic, Americans will spend between $202.5 billion and $218.4 billion online this holiday season, according to the National Retail Federation — a 20% to 30% increase from last year's levels.

Your stuff may also end up behind another rather important delivery in line, says Julie Ramhold, a senior staff writer at DealNews. "Now that FedEx and UPS are prioritizing shipping out the vaccine, there's a good chance you could see things pushed to the back of the pile," she says. "That could put more strain on USPS, which is already warning about a high number of packages in the system and fewer workers due to the pandemic."

FedEx, UPS, and the United States Postal Service all say gifts sent via ground shipping by December 15 — that is, today — should still arrive by Christmas Day. Ordering by December 15 is your best bet to get everything on time, agrees Ramhold: "That's a good, safe chunk of time. You should get your items when you need them."

Getting everything under the tree in time this year may require some urgency, and a backup plan should your gifts get stuck in the mail.

Order today: 'You should get your items when you need them'

Retail industry insiders have been expecting warnings of widespread shipping delays for months, says Casey Runyan, managing editor of Brad's Deals. "It seems retailers had their head in the sand," she says. "But they're seeing that things didn't ship as quickly as they'd expected for Black Friday, and it was a sharp dose of reality."

Even ordering online by or on December 15 is not a guarantee, Ramhold warns. "If there's a blizzard and that shuts down any shipping hubs, if something goes wrong, you could have a setback and then you're talking about pushing it even further."

Start early, and don't assume you'll get 2-day shipping

The earlier you buy, the better, says Runyan. "People need to be aware that the longer they wait, the more their options are going to dwindle."

Because major online retailers and big box stores tend to have deals with shippers, you may find better luck shopping big than going with an online mom-and-pop shop, says Ramhold. That's because "smaller or independent stores are much likelier to see delays."

That said, Target and other major players are seeing issues, too, says Runyan. "Amazon third-party sellers have been reporting that Amazon is prioritizing shipping their inventory over third-party seller inventory," she says. "You're going to see much more 'Free Delivery for Prime Members',  but not two-day Prime shipping on a lot of items as the holidays approach. Customers shouldn't take two-day shipping for granted."

Make a backup plan in case your gifts get held up

If you do end up procrastinating, you may be able to pay extra for expedited shipping. "You can expect retailers to start charging more as the date nears, or they may offer expedited shipping to members of their loyalty program," Ramhold says. "But I'm not sure paying for it is worth it — if you have delays, you can do everything right and it still won't get there on time."

If you want to avoid the shipping headache altogether, consider shopping online and opting for in-store or curbside pickup, says Ramhold. "If you're near a mall, you're actually in a pretty good position," she says. "Some stores, such as Belk, are saying, 'If you pick this up in-store, you'll save an extra 10%.'"

People need to be aware that the longer they wait, the more their options are going to dwindle.
Casey Runyan
Managing editor, Brad's Deals

If you bought your gifts online and their arrival looks dicey, make sure you have a backup plan, says Runyan. "Subscription services come with an option to send an e-gift card to the recipient," she says. "You'll still look pretty good — no one expects to get the first installment on the exact day."

Printing out a picture or including details of your delayed gift in a card might be a good option for an adult recipient, she adds. For a kid, doing curbside pickup for a few cheap but fun toys can be a day-of holdover until the real gifts arrive.

And watch out for scams

As always, any too-good-to-be-true deal you see on that item you've been looking everywhere for should be treated with extreme skepticism, says Runyan. "We are seeing so many online scams designed to trick people," she says. "You'll see a suspiciously low price, and it's not a real site. They're just looking to get your info and charge your credit card."

Thoroughly inspect any site that doesn't feel quite right to you, Runyan says. Be on the lookout for product categories that don't make sense or low-quality images.

KitchenAid stand mixers, Instant Pots, air fryers, and other hot-ticket kitchen items are common on scam sites, she says: "We've really seen these ramp up during the pandemic."

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