Good news for procrastinating holiday shoppers: The last call for online orders is later than ever this season.
In recent years, Internet retailers have been able to take orders placed later and later in the holiday season and still deliver the goods in time for Christmas, thanks to improved warehouse operations and transportation logistics.
Shoppers have become increasingly comfortable ordering at the last minute, driving online retail volume through the roof during the last week before Christmas.
This year, retailers are sweetening the pot by giving shoppers a bit more time to click or tap on a purchase and still have the orders delivered for free.
L.L. Bean in Freeport, Maine, offers free shipping on orders placed as late as Sunday at noon, guaranteeing the package will arrive in time to rest under the tree. Drop a hundred dollars on Lord & Taylor’s website anytime before 2 p.m. Monday and the package will be delivered for free by Christmas Eve. Most other websites promise to come through on orders placed on Friday or Saturday.
Analysts say e-tailers are pushing their free-shipping deadlines back to recoup sales in a sluggish holiday season with one fewer weekend than last year’s.
And it’s a welcome extension for time-strapped consumers, who were expected to postpone their holiday purchases later in the season this year as their confidence in online shopping continues to grow.
“Retailers over time have improved their own efficiencies and processes and are just getting better at handling orders,” said Adam Lella, an analyst with the digital analytics firm comScore. “The season is also shorter, so Christmas is going to creep up on a lot of people this year.”
ComScore found that online shopping from Dec. 17 to Dec. 21 last year climbed 53 percent, compared with activity in the last business week before Christmas in 2011.
This year, the research firm had predicted shoppers would defer more than a quarter of total online sales in the holiday season until Dec. 15 or later, a sharp contrast to just three years ago, when online spending dropped off in the second week of the month.
A recent survey by the National Retail Federation found that 32 million Americans hadn’t even started shopping as of Dec. 9. Among those surveyed, half said they intended to do the remainder of their shopping online, the highest percentage since the firm began the survey 11 years ago.
Niraj Shah, chief executive of the home decor and furnishings e-tailer Wayfair.com, said the Boston company is able to deliver a high volume of orders in a short period of time thanks to a more efficient distribution system developed over the last few years.
Five years ago, it took Wayfair.com an average of four days to ship an order out of the warehouse. Today, the company can do it in a day and a half.
“It’s a fraction of what it was, and we want that number to come down every year,” Shah said.
The company has cut the time to process and deliver goods by investing in new software it uses to get a better grasp of inventory and to automate the order flow from its 8,000 suppliers.
Wayfair also promotes products it stocks in large quantities and can delivery quickly. This season, for example, the website offers 30,000 items available for two-day shipping under its holiday tab, an increase from 20,000 last year. The site also denotes products that can still be delivered by Christmas Eve with an image of a red present, such as $49 silver cufflinks or a $34 spa gift set.
Shah believes the efforts are paying off. Wayfair expects to ship over 1.5 million orders this quarter, up from 200,000 in 2007.
Although analysts say confidence in online orders is rising because distribution processes have evolved over time, some companies believe it’s just a matter of adding workers.
L.L. Bean, which had 250,000 Internet orders on Cyber Monday, has hired enough seasonal workers to handle any surge in online orders. The company added 4,200 workers in distribution, customer service, and retail stores this year, an increase of several hundred from last year.
It also has a temporary workforce that nearly matches L.L. Bean’s 5,000 annual employees, said Carolyn Beem, a company spokeswoman.
The retailer also expanded its distribution center in 2007, a move that allows the company to store more than 10 million products and process an average of 50,000 orders a day.
Beem said the company’s Freeport distribution center was designed around the busy Christmas season, but sometimes the extra workers aren’t enough to get the products out the door.
“It’s all hands on deck at Christmas,” she said. “A lot of us in the office here will turn off the computers and go to the distribution center and help pack orders. We like the break and the sense that we’re saving Christmas.”