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If you want that Xbox by Christmas, you'd better move fast

If you want to guarantee the gifts you bought online will be on your doorstep before Christmas, you'll probably need to place your order a bit earlier this year.

Because the holiday falls on a Sunday, several retailers are pulling forward the deadline for shoppers to complete their online purchases to ensure they'll be delivered by Christmas when using standard shipping, said Kevon Hills, senior vice president of operations and insights at StellaService.

Whereas 12 companies tracked by the customer service expert ensured on-time delivery for orders placed on Dec. 22 or 23 of last year, that number has dipped to four this season, the firm's research found. (Though some of the companies included in this year's sample were not studied last year, none of those additions or exclusions had an impact on the changes in those numbers.)

The shift comes as bricks-and-mortar retailers are leaning more heavily on their in-store pickup services, which enable them to keep ringing up online sales once the delivery window has passed.

Wal-Mart, for example, will guarantee eligible orders placed online by 6 p.m. local time on Dec. 23 will be ready for pickup before closing at 6 p.m. Christmas Eve.

But while these capabilities give shoppers another way to finish their last-minute shopping, Hills emphasized that the service cannot be used as a substitution for fast delivery.

"It gives them the ability to capture more revenue," Hills said, adding that they still need to be able to get shoppers their orders through whichever method they prefer.

The earlier cutoff deadlines come despite a relatively smooth holiday last season, when UPS delivered some 98 percent of its packages on time. Rival FedEx experienced more hiccups, but was still much improved from 2013. That year, a massive snowstorm and an overstretched network prevented deliveries across the carrier networks from arriving on time.

A United Parcel Service delivery driver carries Amazon.com packages in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Victor J. Blue | Bloomberg | Getty Images
A United Parcel Service delivery driver carries Amazon.com packages in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Although new data from ShipMatrix shows that fewer deliveries are arriving on time than during the remainder of the year, they have improved over the same time in 2015. Hills is optimistic that retailers' in-store pickup services will also run more smoothly during the busy final stretch before Christmas. During the Black Friday to Cyber Monday period, there were fewer roadblocks when customers placed orders.

Both the major shipping companies and retailers are beefing up their staffing to meet growing demand for online shopping. Online sales are expected to grow 11 percent this holiday, according to Adobe Digital Insights.

Hills noted that as the holidays draw closer, many major retailers push their delivery deadlines later. Sometimes, they'll decide to do so because they're falling short on their sales goals. Other times, they realize they can handle more volume than they'd planned for. They can roll out faster shipping by paying out of pocket for pricier delivery options, or shipping from their stores, Hills said.

The number of packages delivered within five days has improved between 4 and 5 percent every year since 2013, according to StellaService's data. Heading into the holidays, traditional retailers' delivery speeds were just under four days, on average.

"We've definitely seen speeds come down," Hill said.

That's especially important as consumers demand speedier shipments at a breakneck pace. A survey released by Deloitte earlier this season found just 42 percent of shoppers characterize three- to four-day shipping as "fast." That's down 21 points in just one year.

For a list of 28 major retailers' deadlines for standard shipping, see the infographic above. Retailers whose deadlines do not specify a time either did not provide an hourly cutoff, or have not given an explicit deadline. For some companies, StellaService calculated their cutoff dates by using the year-round shipping information.