As we get closer to Christmas, many of us prefer to order our presents online and skip the long lines in grocery stores. I make the same mistake every year, waiting until the very last minute to start shopping. And every year, I ask myself the same question: Will my stuff be delivered before Christmas?

For businesses, the holiday season is often a very important time, and setting the right expectations for customers while maximizing sales is key. Let’s take a look at how big retailers do it, what we can learn from them, and what the best practices are.

Each year, retailers adjust their strategies to cater to the holiday rush. This year is no different, with several big names laying out their plans early. Amazon, the e-commerce leader, has not set a concrete shipping deadline. They have a label on each product page that indicates whether the products will arrive before Christmas or not. This depends on the customer’s location, whether the item is shipped by Amazon or the merchant, and where the item is currently stored. This is very important for customers, but also stressful for 3rd party sellers who don’t want to miss out on sales.

As you can expect, having this badge greatly improves your conversion rate for desirable Christmas presents.

Similarly, Best Buy and Walmart have not announced official shipping deadlines, but both provide two-day shipping on many items. Estée Lauder and Kay Jewelers prominently display their shipping cut-off dates on their websites. For example, Kay Jewelers set one of the latest cut-off dates seen among major companies. Customers can, in theory, order up until the 23rd and still receive their order on time. Generally, it is very important to give customers clear expectations. Not doing so and shipping orders late can of course upset customers and damage the brand’s reputation. But it also has an important financial cost. A retailer not clear on deadlines, or not meeting these deadlines, can face a customer service nightmare and pay high reverse logistics costs, especially if they pay for part of the returns. 

To help with shipping delays, many retailers are pushing omnichannel solutions. Options like Buy Online Pick up In-Store (BOPIS) or curbside pickup are available. For example, Yankee Candle prominently advertised its BOPIS service, reflecting a broader trend among retailers to offer more flexible shopping options. 

Carriers like USPS, UPS, and FedEx have also published their holiday schedules. USPS states that December 16 is the last day for ground service shipping. UPS and FedEx have similar deadlines, with services like UPS Three-Day Select and FedEx Ground having cut-off dates around mid-December.

With these shipping dates in mind, customers have to adapt and find the best way to get their Christmas presents on time.

Survey data suggests a large number of consumers start their holiday shopping well before the traditional peak. This shows how important it is for retailers to make it attractive to shop early. Doing so minimizes the return rate and limits the need for customer service reps during the peak season. Retailers can also offer alternative shipping options, with faster service.

An interesting strategy is the “Free Shipping Days”, which makes it attractive for budget-conscious shoppers, and makes it easier to forecast demand and limit the peak for sellers.

Navigating the holiday shipping season takes planning, awareness, and strategic thinking. Shoppers have high expectations and want to receive their orders on time. For online sellers, the key is finding the right balance between maximizing sales while minimizing the risk of getting a high rate of returns and upsetting customers.