Stores have rare edge over web in fight for last-minute shoppers

RetailDow Jones Newswires

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If you are procrastinating on those last few stocking stuffers, know that retailers are ready to fight for your money.

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In the final stretch of what is expected to be a strong holiday shopping season, retailers are playing to their strengths. More e-commerce sites are offering fast or even same-day delivery options, though many free-shipping deadlines have passed.

Traditional retailers, meanwhile, are pushing in-store pickup for last-minute web orders, and many have added same-day delivery options as well.

Amazon.com Inc. is offering Prime members free two-day shipping on orders placed as late as Friday and free same-day shipping on orders as late as Dec. 24 in more than 8,000 cities and towns.

Because Christmas falls on a Monday this year, consumers have an extra full weekend to shop in stores -- giving bricks-and-mortar retailers a slight sales advantage. Web retailers, meanwhile, have stepped up communications with shoppers about shipping deadlines and package delays, hoping to head off weekend disappointments.

"Having Christmas Eve on a Sunday, I won't lie to you, is pretty sweet for retailers," said Charlie Cole, chief digital officer for Tumi, which operates about 170 U.S. stores.

The luggage brand also sells online and made changes there to accommodate nervous shoppers this year, including new order-tracking software and notification emails that alerted existing customers about approaching cutoff dates for cheaper shipping options. Tumi also added a "smart gift" option, a way for a buyer to tell a recipient by email that a gift is en route, and for the recipient to specify preferences such as color of a bag. It is likely to cut down on returns, Mr. Cole said.

Many retailers added same-day shipping to compete with Amazon, said Daphne Carmeli, chief executive of Deliv Inc., a Menlo Park, Calif., delivery firm that executes same-day service for retailers such as Bloomingdale's and PetSmart Inc. in 35 regions this season, up from 17 last year.

Best Buy Co. plans to make Christmas Eve deliveries in 40 markets for orders placed by noon that day, a spokesman said, up from 13 markets last year.

Overall, online sales since Nov. 1 are up about 23% compared with the same period last year, according to Slice Intelligence, which collects data from email receipts. Amazon actually lost share over the Thanksgiving weekend as other retailers ratcheted up their discount advertising, but it has gained ground since then, said Ken Cassar, principal analyst at Slice.

In the week leading up to Christmas, consumers are fixated on "will it get there on time" rather than "getting a great deal," said Amit Sharma, chief executive of San Francisco-based retail-technology firm Narvar. His clients are in touch with shoppers more frequently when it comes to cutoff dates and offering perks when delays occur, he said.

Eve Benton of Medford, Ore., used Amazon's two-day shipping option last week to order presents for her nieces and nephews, but she isn't taking chances with online sellers this week.

"Shipping one week out might be a little bit unreliable," the 43-year-old said. She plans in-person visits to Old Navy, Macy's and Sees Candies for the rest of her shopping list.

To attract customers like Ms. Benton, retailers are promoting in-store pickup services. At Wal-Mart Stores, Amazon's largest competitor, customers can place online orders as late as 4 p.m. on Dec. 23, then retrieve them Christmas Eve at one of its 4,700 U.S. locations. In-store pickup demand typically doubles during the two weeks before Christmas, a spokeswoman said, though she declined to say what the retailer expects to see this year.

In-store pickup is a way for Wal-Mart to keep fulfilling online orders in time for Christmas, even though its cutoff date for free shipping in many areas has passed.

Shoppers finished 61% of their holiday shopping by Tuesday, according to the National Retail Federation, compared with 53% at the same time last year. More than half of shoppers said they plan to finish the job online.

Amazon is waiting for them. "We see people pushing back and pushing off shopping later and later every holiday season," said Stephenie Landry, a vice president at Amazon who shepherds Prime Now, the online retailer's one- and two-hour service. The service will be available for ordering as late as 9 p.m. for delivery by 11:59 p.m. on Dec. 24 in more than 30 cities. "Every year, we have our biggest holiday ever."

Hot sellers in the day or two before Christmas tend to be items shoppers forgot, like wrapping paper, paper towels, food and last-minute gifts. Each Prime Now warehouse stocks roughly 20,000 items, and during the holiday season they change the assortment to add more gifts.

"The availability does give consumers confidence that they don't have to do [their shopping] months in advance," Ms. Landry said. "We've pushed it literally to the last minute."

Amazon also plans to attract customers to its more than 470 Whole Foods locations and more than a dozen bookstores.

"I definitely am a last-minute shopper," said Liam Goslett, a 26-year-old photographer in Toronto. He has bought a few Christmas gifts but is still missing a few stocking stuffers and other presents for his parents and siblings.

For those, he is turning to Amazon, where he has a Prime membership. "They've absolutely ruined other shipping methods for me," he said.

Write to Sarah Nassauer at sarah.nassauer@wsj.com and Laura Stevens at laura.stevens@wsj.com