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Here’s a short guide for those of you buying gift-like-objects from online retailers this December, assuming you need the item before 24 December for whatever reason (I don’t judge) and you’d like to know how long you can window shop in the local stores, draining the lifeblood of physical retail, before you just buy it from Amazon.

I’m pulling dates mostly from the applicable Amazon help page, “Holiday Ordering Deadlines for the U.S.”, while making some allowances for weekends — I know Amazon (or rather, the USPS on behalf of Amazon) makes Saturday and even Sunday deliveries now but we probably shouldn’t count on everything running smoothly this month, shipping-wise, and there might also be reasons you’d rather have an item delivered to your workplace rather than your home. I’m padding in a day or two where applicable for similar reasons. Another thing to remember is that for most small items (smaller than a hardcover book – which would include CDs, small electronics, jewelry, and the like) the ‘final mile’ is going to be covered by the local mail carrier no matter who the shipper is, as the US Postal Service has deals with Amazon, FedEx, and UPS. If you have concerns about parcels in your mailbox, or use a PO Box or otherwise might need an extra day, it’s something to consider.

And so:

For standard ground shipping (5-6 business days) which is also Amazon and many other online retailers standard ‘free’ shipping option, you should order no later than Wednesday 13 December to anticipate delivery before Friday the 22nd. Amazon’s cutoff date is actually Friday 15 December, but remember – it takes time for most non-Amazon retailers to find an item, box it, and get it into the hands of a parcel delivery service. The longer you wait the more you tempt fate and are subject to the random predations of the logistics gremlins. Personally, I’d order before noon on the 13th.

If you have Amazon Prime and can take advantage of free two-day shipping, I’d recommend ordering no later than Tuesday 19 December. Again, I’d try to get an order in before noon. Amazon’s cutoff for two-day Prime shipping is actual 22 December, but first off – that’s a Friday and you are now putting a lot of faith in overloaded delivery services to get a package to you on Christmas Eve, and a Sunday on top of that, and I don’t have that kind of faith. Unless you plan to rely on miracles, I’d stick with Tuesday as your strong cutoff for anything but an extra, last-minute stocking stuffer.

For orders headed to Alaska, Hawaii, or other American outposts not covered by ‘standard’ standard shipping, you should place that order on or before Monday 11 December.

11 December is also a pretty good soft deadline for most small online retailers, especially companies you have no previous experience ordering from, or that are located on the other side of the country from you, or that are actual physical shops that just happen to do a little online on the side. This is 10 business days, but only after including the Monday you order and Friday 22 December, which as noted above is sort of the shipping deadline. Ideally, you’d want to get the order in by Wednesday 6 December, which will give the shop 2 days to get that onto a truck, and the shipping service two full weeks to lose your package, find it again, and finally get it to you.

If you are ordering one-of-a-kind items from a maker, crafter, or artist, either direct or via a service like Ebay or Etsy, I’d go ahead and order that tomorrow. Tomorrow, in this case, is Monday 4 December, but you likely aren’t reading this on the 3rd. You want to give this person (who, after all, has to fulfill holiday orders while doing their own shopping and xmas prep and dealing with whatever crises in between) as much time as humanly possible not only because it’s a thoughtful and kind thing to do, but also so that you don’t have to play the evil villain later by sending a dozen emails with variations of “OMG STILL HAVEN’T RECEIVED PARCEL!!!” when the seller can’t really do anything else because it’s up to the logistics gremlins at that point.

All that said, for Etsy and the like you could probably consider 11 December (that’s a busy Monday right there) as the ‘hard’ deadline for orders, if the seller has some sort of notation in the item description that stock is on-hand and ready to go. Anything custom or that has to be assembled, and yeah, tomorrow would be better.

& If you miss any of these deadlines?

I wouldn’t sweat it too much. You can always go by whatever is listed on the retailer’s website – they’re all going to have their own, different, drop-dead dates. And of course, you can always pay for next-day or overnight shipping, with some caveats:
1. it takes time to find and box things, so that’s a day
2. it takes time for a parcel service to do a pick-up, or for an underpaid, hassled employee to drop it off at an office. An overcrowded, holiday-peak-shipping-rush office full of other cranky people. So that’s another day. and
3. it’s the holidays so there may be stuff on your end, or some kind of missed connection with the delivery driver, that delays it even further.
The other thing to keep in mind is that ‘next-day’ and even two-day shipping is often hedged with the “delivery on or before 8pm” nonsense which gives the shipper a lot of wiggle room but might also complicate things. So even if you pay for overnight shipping, it might still take as long as three days, worst case.

Noon, Wednesday 20 December, would be my recommended hard deadline for any online order, and I’d go ahead and opt for expedited shipping at that point.


I hope you find this info and my suggestions helpful, and if your preferred vendor is Amazon & you wan’t to help me out just a little: please visit this landing page [] over on Amazon before you do the rest of your shopping. There are a couple of gift suggestions there, and if you click the links I might see some commissions. Thanks!