Three days to go, and even the most generous delivery options are unlikely to ensure those last-minute gifts arrive by Christmas. Retailers and shippers are rushing to move an estimated 3 billion packages this holidays season, a nearly 30% jump from last year.

But despite months of preparation, a pandemic-fueled surge in online orders is overwhelming U.S. Postal Service operations and inundating private shippers. Now businesses and consumers across the country are reporting significant delivery bottlenecks. With time running out – and that sweater you ordered two weeks ago still not materializing – the question becomes, now what?

“If consumers have left online shopping late or have packages that have failed to arrive, then they may need to turn to other options to get their gifts on time,” said Neil Saunders, managing director of GlobalData Retail. “Fortunately, retailers are offering more ways than ever to get products this year.”

Now that it’s crunch time, here are some tips for improving the odds those Christmas parcels arrive on time.

– If your delivery is late, give it another day

There’s still a good chance that delayed present could still arrive, says Julie Ramhold, an analyst at Shipment updates, she says, are increasingly spotty, so just because it looks like a package is stuck somewhere, doesn’t mean it isn’t on its way.

“Tracking may not be updated so it seems like something is in limbo, and then it’ll just show up on your porch,” she said. “While it is anxiety-inducing to see a shipment stalled no matter how many times you press refresh, odds are your packages are still in safe hands and on their way.”


That said, an estimated 2.2 million packages are falling behind each day, according to Satish Jindel, president of Ship Matrix. Most of those packages are delayed by just one day, he said, though some are showing up as many as six days late.

If the package hasn’t shipped, analysts say, ask the vendor to cancel the order. If that is not possible, initiate a return – many companies have expanded their return windows during the holidays – and start over. Keep in mind that some retailers may offer only store credit, and not a full refund.

“For failed or late deliveries, consumers need to decide whether they want to try and get a replacement,” Saunders said. “If they do, they should check that the original order can be returned even if [it] eventually shows up.”

In 2019, shoppers returned an estimated $40 billion worth of merchandise purchased online in November and December, according to a report by commercial real estate services firm CBRE. Analysts say they expect that figure to be considerably higher this year given the surge in e-commerce.

– Consider alternative delivery arrangements

Given the unprecedented shipping pileups, many retailers are shifting their focus to same-day delivery directly from their stores.

Macy’s and Bloomingdales are partnering with restaurant delivery service DoorDash to get orders directly to shoppers, while Sephora and Dick’s Sporting Goods have similar arrangements with grocery carrier Instacart. Shipt, the delivery service owned by Target, offers same-day drop-offs from retailers such as Sur La Table, Buy Buy Baby and Office Depot.


Best Buy – which offers same-day delivery through Roadie, Shipt and Instacart – is enlisting store employees to drop off packages at customers’ homes daily until 10:30 p.m. in the run-up to Christmas. The chain also is offering pickup at more than 16,000 alternate locations, including CVS pharmacies, Michaels crafts stores and Advance Auto Parts.

“This has obviously been a year like never before, which is why we’re delivering to our customers like never before, too,” Best Buy spokeswoman Carly Charlson said in an email.

– Pick it up yourself

Retailers have spent the past year building up contactless curbside and store pickup options. Analysts say now is the time to go that route, if you haven’t already.

A number of national chains such as J.C. Penney, Kohl’s and World Market, are offering discounts of as much as 20% to shoppers who are willing to pick up online orders in person.

At Gap, orders placed before 2 p.m. on Christmas Eve will be ready for pickup within two hours, company spokesman Christopher Cooney said in an email.

But even store pickup can get backlogged. Sucharita Kodali, a retail analyst for Forrester, suggests showing up first thing in the morning to avoid crowds and long waits. And, she added, “you should have several options in mind in case your Plan A doesn’t work out.”


– Spring for a gift card instead

If you’ve put off your shopping for the last minute, analysts say it might just be time to pick up a gift card. Many retailers offer online options that can be sent on the spot or pre-scheduled for delivery on Christmas morning.

“Gift cards are an option for the very last minute,” Saunders said. “They can be delivered almost instantaneously.”

Another alternative: GiftNow, a service being offered by national retailers such as American Eagle, Vera Bradley and Uniqlo, which allows shoppers to pick an item and “send” it virtually – along with a video message. The recipient can accept the item, or exchange it for a different color, size or style, before it ships. Coach is offering a 5% discount on all purchases made using the service.

– If all else fails, get creative (but don’t feel bad)

After all, it’s 2020 – and if we’ve learned anything this year, it’s that we have to be flexible, Ramhold says.

She recommends printing out a photo of the item and sticking it in a card under the tree. Or, she says, you can come up with a riddle or small scavenger hunt to help clue in the recipient to what’s in store.

“The gift might not be there in time but there’s still the excitement of figuring out what they’re going to get and when it will arrive,” she said. “It can still be a memorable holiday.”

She offered other ideas, too, such as wrapping a stand-in present – a dollhouse couch in place of a real one, for example – or telling children their gift fell off Santa’s sleigh, but that an elf or reindeer will be by later to drop it off.

After all, she said, it’s the thought that counts. Especially this year.