Fingers crossed: Retailers allow late online orders

After record shipping volumes and bad weather last year caused many retailers to break their Christmas delivery promises, are they playing it safe in 2014?

According to research by customer service analytics firm StellaService, some retailers are shifting their online order deadlines earlier this holiday, in an effort to avoid disappointing shoppers on Christmas Day.

A UPS truck is loaded with packages from the UPS Worldport.
Jodi Gralnick | CNBC
A UPS truck is loaded with packages from the UPS Worldport.

But many are holding firm on their late-in-the-season cutoff dates—in some cases pushing them even later—in hopes of capturing last-minute sales from procrastinators.

"We said all along that we should expect to see some companies get more aggressive," said Kevon Hills, vice president of research at StellaService.

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Lululemon and Pottery Barn, for example, moved their deadlines later this year—by about four and two days, respectively—to Dec. 22. A slew of other retailers are promising delivery for orders placed on Dec. 22, including Saks Fifth Avenue, Zappos and Sears. Nordstrom has the latest cutoff date of the retailers examined, at noon on Dec. 23.

On the other end of the spectrum, electronics retailer Newegg.com moved its cutoff date four days earlier to Friday. The most popular cutoff is Dec. 19, though Hills emphasized that retailers often change their deadlines as the season progresses—so consumers need to be alert.

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"The importance of retailers really being up front about those cutoff dates and sticking to them is ultimately the most helpful for shoppers," said ‎Ty McMahan, senior director of marketing and content at StellaService.

StellaService compiled its data by looking at the standard shipping deadlines for 40 retailers. When a retailer did not explicitly state a deadline, the firm used the store's standard shipping estimates to determine the last day to order, and receive that order by Christmas.

Tis' the season for stealing?
Tis' the season for stealing?   

Industry insiders have been watching retailers' cutoff dates to see if they would heed carriers' warnings and move them earlier than last year.

That's because in 2013, a combination of bad weather, record online sales and retailers' last-minute delivery promises caused a number of packages to arrive after their expected delivery date. Many retailers blamed the carriers for their late deliveries; the carriers, in turn, said their capacities were exceeded.

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"We work with customers all year to set expectations early and understand their planned shipping needs leading into the holiday season," FedEx said in a statement Wednesday. "We encourage an open dialogue with our customers and are proud to commit to outstanding service as long as this collaboration remains. Beyond that, we'll work directly with our customers on a case-by-case basis to determine next steps."

UPS spokeswoman Susan Rosenberg said UPS has been working closely with large retailers for months.

"We've built operating plans on mutual commitments of volume throughout December," she said. "These closely align with promotions and cut-off plans and specific shipping characteristics for pickup locations and advance visibility on package volume being sent to us in trailers. UPS won't do anything to jeopardize the efficiency of our network to meet these commitments and established plans."

On retailers' cutoff dates last year, StellaService ordered the same item from 25 different companies three separate times, sending the packages to various parts of the country. According to the firm, 12 percent of these 75 packages missed their promised delivery date. All but one of those failed deliveries was shipped via UPS.

Eight retailers missed their deliveries: Macy's, Gap, Kohl's, Nordstrom, Pottery Barn, Staples, Dell and TigerDirect.

Although some of these retailers are staying aggressive with their promises this season, Hills said he's optimistic that things should run a little more smoothly than last year—so long as the weather behaves. That's because both retailers and carriers are better prepared to handle massive volumes this time.

"I do expect things to be a little bit better this year, but we'll have to wait and see," Hills said.

Click here for StellaService's full list of order deadlines.