Retailers   //   December 10, 2021

How retailers are promoting their holiday shipping cut-off dates

This year, retailers want customers to think early December holiday shopping is the “last minute.” 

In the past few weeks, major retailers and big-box stores have been preparing their customers for delays by advertising shipping “deadlines.” Some, like Gap and Kohl’s, are incentivizing rewards members with free or discounted shipping rates if they shop online early. Meanwhile, other retailers, like Walmart and Apple, have already begun promoting their same-day shipping or pickup options to customers waiting until the last week before Christmas to buy gifts.

Last year, retailers were at the mercy of overwhelmed delivery carriers, who struggled to support an elevated level of online shopping. As a result, many last-minute orders didn’t make it in time for Christmas. This year, retailers are trying to get ahead of shipping delays coupled with inventory shortages by pushing customers to order early, and some have encouraged their customers to place their Christmas orders as soon as the first week of December. If they don’t give clear shipping deadlines, they risk losing sales and disappointing holiday shoppers.

As one of the major online shopping destinations, Amazon is tailoring its shipping deadlines based on item availability. Despite its one- and two-day Prime delivery promise, Amazon is also labeling listings based on their gifting potential. Amazon doesn’t have an official site-wide banner for Christmas delivery windows yet. However, the e-commerce giant has “Arrives before Christmas” tags on eligible products across its marketplace. Similarly, Walmart doesn’t have a uniform shipping deadline across its website and seller marketplace. Instead, the retailer has been promoting local pickup and free same-day delivery via its Walmart+ membership program.

Kylee Magno, principal analyst at Astound Commerce, said given last year’s delays, many customers are expecting features like buy online, pickup in-store and curbside pickup. “We’ve continually seen this amenity grow in popularity, even after store restrictions were lifted,” Magno said. 

It’s why some retailers are utilizing their stores to encourage local pickup over traditional courier delivery. Apple, for example, has outlined each product’s shipping deadline and is prompting customers to shop from their local store if the “order by” date has passed. For example, the last chance to order an iPad Pro via shipping was December 8, while engraved AirPods Max can be ordered until December 13. According to the tech company’s website, last-minute shoppers who missed the traditional shipping deadline can shop via “Apple Pickup or 2-hour courier delivery from your local Apple Store.” 

Meanwhile, some are foregoing deadline prompts and already promoting their same-day shipping services. This week, Target-owned Shipt announced it will offer same-day delivery up until Christmas Eve, which falls on Friday, December 24. 

According to the company’s announcement, Shipt is forecasting December 23 “will be the biggest December shopping day” for the service. In turn, Shipt is catering to those last-minute shoppers by offering delivery until 6 p.m. local time on Christmas Eve. 

Some retailers are pushing customers to checkout early by offering free or discounted shipping. Kohl’s’ website is currently offering free shipping on orders over $35 that are placed by December 15; Kohl’s loyalty program members don’t have to hit a minimum order value to get free shipping. Meanwhile Gap’s family of brands — which include Athleta and Old Navy — is offering rewards members free shipping on orders over $50 and flat rate shipping on orders under $5. The company, however, warns that “orders may be delayed due to high volume.”

Jeremy Horowitz, head of marketing at e-commerce analytics platform Daasity, said promoting shipping cut-offs is about “setting proper expectations” for customers. 

“It’s also critical in preventing returns or cancellations and driving one final pre-holiday sales push,” Horowitz said. But most importantly, from a marketing perspective, an ordering deadline is “a free reason to reach out to customers,” he said.

To effectively communicate shipping timelines with customers, Horowitz said retailers have to run through a checklist. Typically, brands run email and SMS campaigns in addition to clear website banners and the countdown clocks that online shoppers have become accustomed to. 

Whatever the specific messaging, Horowitz said brands should “clearly state the date and time the last order will be accepted for each shipping option.”