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Retailers push shipping deadlines later despite delays

Online shoppers had better act fast.

Even as retailers become more aggressive with their shipping guarantees, time is running out for consumers who want to have their holiday orders delivered before Christmas.

According to a study by customer analytics firm StellaService, Dec. 21 is the most common deadline put in place by retailers promising standard or free shipping by Dec. 25. That's one additional day compared to last year, when the most common cutoff date was Dec. 20.

The push toward later deadlines comes as the two major carriers are once again beefing up their holiday hiring, and as bricks-and-mortar retailers have worked out many of the kinks related to fulfilling online orders, including the added option to pick them up in store.

But they also come as the industry is already seeing hiccups with deliveries. According to a study by Kurt Salmon, among standard shipping orders it placed with 62 retailers on Cyber Monday, the average order-to-delivery time was 6.9 days — 20 percent slower than last year.

Slower processing times among retailers was the bigger culprit for these delays, the global management consulting firm said. However, it also found that 9 percent of the packages sent via UPS Ground encountered some sort of unexpected delay during the shipping process. That, the firm said, signals a larger problem: a carrier network that's at capacity.

Last week, a separate analysis by ShipMatrix found that 91 percent of orders delivered by UPS' ground service during Cyber Week were on time, compared to 97 percent during that time frame last year.

Susan Rosenberg, a spokeswoman for UPS, said the company "processed significant volume" during Cyber Week, but "the vast majority" of customers received their shipments on time.

She added that in high-impact areas, the company sent additional personnel to manage the volume, and that the carrier is on track to deliver more than 630 million packages between Black Friday and the end of December.

If there were no carrier delays, Kurt Salmon said the average order-to-delivery time would have been cut to 6.7 days. But because carrier delays are unplanned, they are harder for retailers to work around. For instance, if a retailer takes longer than expected to fulfill an order on its end, it can select a faster shipping method to get the order on shoppers' doorsteps on time.

"You only have to look back to 2013 to find out what could happen if the order volumes exceed retailer and carrier capacity," Kurt Salmon said. The firm was referring to the season when winter storms and overwhelmed carrier networks caused 15 percent of the last-minute orders it placed to be delivered late.

This year, online orders are once again expected to rise, with the Adobe Digital Index calling for online sales to increase 11 percent in November and December, to $83 billion.

Despite this surge and signs of early hiccups, Kevon Hills, vice president of research at StellaService, was optimistic that preparation by the retailers and carriers, along with what's expected to be favorable weather, will lead to another uneventful holiday season.

Last year, only 7 percent of the 160 packages StellaService ordered last-minute were late, compared with 12 percent the prior year. It placed all of its orders on the individual retailers' standard delivery deadlines for guaranteed arrival by Christmas.

According to the firm's data, Macy's and Kohl's had late deliveries in both 2013 and 2014. Yet Macy's is keeping the same cutoff date as it did last year, while Kohl's is giving shoppers extra time to complete their orders.

Kohl's did not respond to request for comment, but it has been investing in streamlining its online and in-store capabilities.

Macy's said by email, "Macy's had very few delivery issues last year, and we have carefully planned once again for holiday 2015. ... Providing on-time deliveries at the holidays is something we plan for year round."

According to Hills, retailers that are able to fulfill orders from their store network have two advantages over those that operate solely online.

For one, they can pull inventory from a nearby location if it looks like a certain shipment won't arrive ahead of Christmas; for another, once cutoff deadlines pass, they can promote the ability for shoppers to pick up their online orders in store. This is something Toys R Us did well last year, he said.

"The fact that they have that offering presents an incredible advantage for them," he said.

That is, if they get it right. According to Kurt Salmon's research, although 35 percent more retailers are offering the buy online, pick up in store option, only 40 percent of these transactions were error-free. Hiccups in this process arise when retailers fail to communicate things such as when an order will be ready, or do not have the order correct when a customer arrives for pickup.

As for free shipping, Kurt Salmon's study found that 90 percent of retailers offered some way for customers to get free shipping, up 15 percent from last year. Hills predicts that as the clock winds down, retailers will once again offer deals on free expedited shipping.

Still, he emphasized that for shoppers who must have certain items by Christmas, the earlier they shop the better.

"It's always good from a consumer standpoint to make sure you get those orders in as early as possible," he said.

See the infographic above to check more than three dozen retailers' online shopping deadlines as of Monday morning. Most have been converted to Eastern Time, though some relate to local time.

Those retailers that only show a date, and not a specific time, have either not provided an hourly deadline, or have not provided an explicit deadline. For some retailers, StellaService calculated its cutoff dates by using year-round delivery information.