The 2013 holiday shopping season was largely defined by its price wars. And while those are sure to continue this year, another type of battle is already starting to take shape: Shipping wars.
Despite a slew of late deliveries last holiday -- the result of last-minute delivery promises and a series of snowstorms -- retailers are looking to get a leg up on the competition by pushing Christmas deadlines for online orders even later in the season.
According to a new study by the Kurt Salmon consulting firm, which surveyed more than 100 retailers with revenue greater than $750 million, 26 percent will guarantee Christmas delivery for orders placed one to three days ahead of time. That's up from 17 percent in 2013. What's more, nearly 50 percent will guarantee on-time delivery for Christmas orders placed by Dec. 20. That's also up, from 37 percent last year.
Overall, these changes mean retailers plan to push back the final order date for guaranteed Christmas arrival from an average of 6.9 days to 5.5 days.
"Retailers are making ambitious promises in order to capture last-minute online sales," said Steve Osburn, retail strategist at Kurt Salmon. "But if you compare average delivery times with last-minute promises, there is a gap that retailers will need to account for."
The findings come as carriers FedEx (FDX) and UPS (UPS) are warning retailers against the 11th-hour delivery promises that lead to shipping delays. Experts remain torn as to whether retailers will listen. While some argue they will heed the warning to protect their brand and build trust with shoppers, others say they'll be unable to resist the temptation as the competition intensifies.
Earlier this season, a Shop.org study of 55 online retailers found that nearly 80 percent of respondents were planning earlier deadlines.
Jarrett Streebin, founder and CEO of EasyPost logistics company, remains skeptical. "I think [the carriers are] really sort of whistling in the dark," he said.
Last year, retailers said about 15 percent of orders arrived late. They're aiming to trim this to 8 percent in 2014.
Companies are also competing over free shipping offers, which Target (TGT) kicked off last month by offering free shipping on all online orders through Dec. 20. According to Kurt Salmon's study, 76 percent of retailers are already offering some form of free shipping, compared with 35 percent last year.
Forrester Research (FORR) predicts online sales will hit a record $89 billion during the final two months of the year, meaning carriers will be met with even more volume. Both FedEx and UPS are boosting their holiday hiring to accommodate the expected increase.
10 Shopping Strategies to Rock Black Friday -- and Beyond
Shipping Wars: Retailers to Push Order Deadlines Later
Two of the best sites to find deals are BlackFriday.com and DealNews.com, which also offer useful free apps and plenty of advice. DealNews rates deals with Editor's Choice labels. And remember, many stores will be open on Gray Thursday (the new retail-centric name for Thanksgiving), with Macy's (M) opening at 6 p.m. There will also be early-bird and night-owl specials, so you can develop an hour-by-hour itinerary. And remember: Before you buy, check out the return policies.
Sheets and linens are still cheaper during the traditional January white sales. Toys are often discounted much closer to Christmas. However, if it's a must-have hot toy, you may have to bite the bullet. Holiday decorations will be marked down the most the day after Christmas. Video games and DVDs may be marked down more if you can wait until after Black Friday week. The big Black Friday bargains this year will again likely be TVs and laptops.
After you have researched the sales, do a little advance showrooming. Try on apparel. Check out the doorbusters -- and alternatives if they sell out. Learn a store's floor plan, where to park, where to check out and where to find a restroom.
On the big day itself, remember your objective. Don't waste time and money on things you don't really want. Keep in mind that not everything labeled "sale" is a real bargain. Many stores will have guaranteed blockbusters, items that will definitely be in stock only for a brief amount of time, and you wouldn't want to miss out on these while distracted by tchotchkes.
Hackers and thieves are a serious problem. Try not to flash your debit card too frequently. You may prefer to use cash and stash it somewhere pickpockets can't easily access. As always, store valuables out of sight in between store visits. Be polite and patient so you don't become a holiday crime statistic. And know that despite the graphic footage of violence at Walmart and other stores every year, your odds are encountering such unpleasantness decrease every year as these stores are beefing up staff and staggering doorbusters. After the shopping, check your credit card statements to make sure no one hacked your accounts.
Best Buy will price-match items sold on Amazon. Many retailers have similar policies. You can also compare prices in-store with smartphone apps and websites like Smoopa and CamelCamelCamel. Bring store ads with you, so that if a desired item is cheaper somewhere else and the store you're at has a price matching policy, you're golden.
Sign up for loyalty programs and apps now so you can get promotions in your email or on your phone. Promotions are often released early to loyal shoppers. Target has a Cartwheel app. J.C. Penney (JCP) and Sears (SHLD) have loyalty programs called JCP rewards and Shop Your Way rewards.
Some of the best deals will be on Thanksgiving. Offers.com has a good updated list on store opening hours, and it may be worth it to rouse yourself from a turkey coma to shop, according to DealNews, which said 29 percent of Editor's Choice deals last year were from Gray Thursday. Following the hustle and bustle of Black Friday comes Small Business Saturday, which since 2010 has promoted local retailers; Super Sunday; and Cyber Monday, which encourages people to shop from their office computers (with the best deals on clothes and shoes, DealNews concluded last year). On Tuesday, feel good knowing you've done all your holiday shopping without breaking the budget or your back.
The best way to stay focused is to dress comfortably, bring a buddy, stay hydrated and be prepared -- for anything. Keep your receipts and remember to ask for gift receipts. If you've done your research, showroomed and your apps, you should have a profitable, pleasant and safe holiday shopping season. And if you have any great tips, leave them in the comments.