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Last minute shopping tips

10 tips to help you survive the busiest shopping days of the year. By Teri Goldberg

If history repeats itself, the week before Dec. 25 will be the busiest shopping week of the year. One of the best ways to avoid the frenzy is shop online. And this season, last-minute cyber shoppers will be able to shop until they drop or — until Santa comes down the chimney -- as more retailers than ever plan to stay open late for business, according to a pre-holiday survey by market research company Jupiter Research.

Retailers and shipping services are simply more confident they can deliver on time, says Patti Freeman Evans, an analyst at Jupiter Research. “In previous years, most (online) orders would stop by Dec. 15 or Dec. 17,” she explains. This year, forty one percent of online retailers surveyed said they would extend cut-off dates in order to encourage last-minute purchases.

Since more shoppers will be online later, here are a few tips to navigate the cyber aisles.

1. Take advantage of late cut-off dates but look out for last-minute fees. Many retailers have pushed back the cut-off date for ordering online. But one day can make a big difference in how much it will cost to ship that last-minute wonder. Does it really make sense to send a stuffer for less than $10 for more than $10?

For example, offers regular shipping until Dec. 22 at midnight. After that, all orders will be sent by express shipping and customers will be charged an extra fee of $8. has set a cut-off date of Dec. 21 for regular shipping. Orders placed on Dec. 22 will be sent by express mail and will incur an additional fee of $12.

Pushing the limits even further, some retailers have set exact times to stop taking orders. For example, will accept orders until 3 p.m. on Dec. 23 and will take orders up until noon on Dec. 23.

Smart retailers have clearly posted holiday shipping schedules on its homepage or in pop-up windows, such as, and

2. Look for last-minute free-shipping offers.  Retailers know that shipping makes or breaks a sale online. But for most retailers it’s too costly to offer free shipping throughout the year. The closer it gets to Dec. 25, companies would rather make the sale, even if it cuts into their profits. Starting the week of Dec. 8, free-shipping offers have been arriving at a fast and furious pace by way of e-mail or snail mail.

Some offers change daily. Most offers, so far, require a minimum purchase for free shipping. For example, has a minimum of $25. sets the bar at $200 or more. Other offers have no minimum purchase required. had free shipping on all orders in the company’s delivery zones during the week of Dec. 8. extended free shipping through Dec. 27.

Some coupon sites list free shipping offers at cyber retailers, such as, which lists 417 offers this year compared to 200 last year.

3. Think click and brick. A limited number of stores offer consumers the option of ordering a product online and then picking it up in a neighborhood store. and ranked the highest among ten stores in a survey of in-store pick-up practices by e-tailing group, a private consultant firm based in Chicago. Factors that influenced the ranking included how fast the consumer received an e-mail confirmation, if the store had a centrally located place for pick-up and ease of returning an item, says Lauren Freedman, president of e-tailing group.

An exceptionally attractive feature at is most orders are ready for pick-up within fifteen minutes after they are placed. And I’m pleased to report that my first experience with “click and brick”—the week of Dec. 8--at was indeed seamless. There even was a special line for online pick-ups at the customer service counter. also has a customer-friendly policy. Cyber shoppers receive a discount if a Sears’ associate does not deliver the goods within five minutes after the customer requests it by way of a store kiosk, says Kylee Magno, a senior analyst at e-tailing.

Other stores with in-store pick-up include:,,,, and Check sites for cut-off dates and time.

When picking up the goods, remember to bring a picture I.D., the credit card you used to place the order and a printed copy of the order confirmation.

4. Consider gift certificates but proceed with caution. Most retailers will happily issue gift cards. But some gift cards come with monthly maintenance fees up to $2.50 a month, according to the Dec. 2003 issue of Consumer Reports. If you don’t use it, you’ll gradually lose it. So per usual, read the fine print, ask questions and save the receipt. Also don’t lose the card itself. Some retailers will not replace lost cards.

5. Convert mileage earned on credit cards into gift certificates but proceed with caution.  Some frequent flier programs let consumers convert unused miles into gift cards. Ditto re: read the fine print, ask questions, etc. It is always easier to accumulate miles rather than cash them in.

6. Have patience. Web sites will be slower the week before Dec. 25 because of all the last-minute shopping. But remember the alternative—shopping online is still better than waiting on those long lines. So put on a festive holiday CD, sip something hot to drink and enjoy the convenience of shopping online.

7. Keep your cool. Don’t overbuy. Last-minute promotions will pop up all over cyber space. I know it’s tempting but how many Elmos do you need? One per American household is enough.

8. Save some of your budget for after-Christmas sales.

9. Buy nothing. On a whim Dan Stocke of Duluth, Minn. set up a Web site where holiday shoppers could buy nothing. Nothing comes in the form of a certificate, which is available at, explains Stock. Each certificate costs $2.95 and prints out on your home computer.

The most basic certificate guarantees nothing. Other certificates come with useless guarantees such as, “Nothing will make you rich beyond your wildest dreams” or “Nothing will make you look ten years younger.”

10. Alternatively buck all the commercialism and buy nothing sans the certificate. Instead, make gifts. Send nice notes. Do good deeds. Think of ways to change the course of history, and help bring joy and peace to the world.

Teri Goldberg is’s shopping writer. Write to her at