Attention online shoppers: If free shipping matters and you need delivery by Christmas Eve, you'd better get clicking.
Virtually all e-commerce sites still dangling free shipping offers drop them by Friday. The biggest online shopping day of the year promises to be Thursday, one day before two-thirds of all online retailers' standard paid shipping deadlines pass for pre-Christmas delivery.
"D-day is here," said Christine Frietchen, editor of consumersearch.com, a Webby-winning Web site that boils down product reviews and has a blog short course on free shipping deadlines and tips. "Even if you pay for shipping, you'd better be done online this weekend. Sunday is the drop-dead day."
Other Web sites list more merchants' free shipping policies, but be prepared to wade through the fine print of minimum purchase requirements, restrictions, exceptions and constantly changing prices. One is cybermonday.com, the site of online trade group shop.org. Another Web site, freeshippingday.com, lists 635 e-commerce sites — including Amazon, Best Buy, Macy's. Sears and Walmart — that offer free shipping deals that expire Thursday.
But not all free shipping offers are the same because some retailers build it into their regular price. Zappos.com, for instance, offers free overnight shipping and returns 365 days a year. But discounting is not part of the biggest online shoe retailer's formula.
"You have to be careful about exactly what the product is to get the best deal," she said. "For example, there are plenty of no-name digital cameras out there for $80, but for $10 more we found a far better Canon A480."
If it seems like the 11th hour snuck up on you this shopping season, you have plenty of company.
Traffic online, in stores and malls is up, but fewer shoppers than usual report finishing their holiday buying. In fact, most shoppers say they have finished only 47 percent of their buying, the least since 2004 and slightly fewer than a year ago. Only 8 percent are done, according to surveys from Big Research.
Playing their annual game of discount pricing chicken with consumers, retailers are fretting over how serious today's frugal shoppers are about waiting for juicier prices before pulling the trigger. According to the American Express Spending Tracker, 31 percent of shoppers are waiting for deeper discounts.
Online sales are running 3 percent ahead of a year ago at about $20 billion through Dec. 12, reports comScore Inc., a research firm.
Overall holiday general merchandise sales to date are running a modest 2.4 percent ahead of last year, according to the same-store sales index compiled by the International Council of Shopping Centers. But those gains could all vaporize in the frantic final seven days when almost a third of holiday transactions are made.
"This is going to come down to another photo finish," said Rosalind Wells, chief economist for the National Retail Federation, which forecast general merchandise sales this season will slip 1 percent to $438 billion.
Mark Albright can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8252.