Tick-tock. Tick-tock. The holiday clock is winding down, and you've still got holes in your shopping list. Don't give up and go to the mall. You still have time to let your fingers do the shopping on the World Wide Web--if you're willing to put your faith in the shipping gods and you know where online to look. Here's our guide to the best last-minute shopping sites:
Start with Yahoo Shopping shopping.yahoo.com) A Last-Minute Gifts link near the top of the home page pulls up a list of dozens of e-tailers, each with a smattering of items expected to be available up to the bitter end, along with drop-dead ordering deadlines. Last we checked, there were diamond-stud earrings from Ashford.com a Toffee Trio from Williams-Sonoma and Blister Guard socks from New Balance. (Selection is likely to change day to day. Real-time product updates from the merchants keep the list fresh, says a Yahoo spokeswoman.)
MSN Shopping shopping.msn.com offers its own Procrastination Central page (find it under Holiday Gift Guide). It's an assembly of links to last-minute options from Red Envelope, Neiman Marcus, JC Penney and others.
For a really easy way out, click MSN's e-Gift Certificates link. Or scan surprise.com's extensive list of merchants that offer gift certificates by e-mail (see Last-Minute Gifts under What Occasion?).
Wondering if you can trust a particular merchant? Bizrate.com compiles store ratings based on hundreds, thousands or, in some cases, tens of thousands of customer surveys. For the choosy buyer, Shopping.com provides consumer reviews of some of the most popular products.
At Amazon.com it's a practice to note an item's availability and when it "usually" ships, which should help the harried. The site's Apparel, Sporting Goods, Gourmet Food and other departments also set off items that are in stock and will ship quickly in green "Simply Give" boxes on their home pages. Note: if you select overnight shipping, that means the day after your order leaves the warehouse--not the day after you hit the Submit Order button.
If you wait until the very last minute this holiday season, however, expect to get socked with some hefty delivery fees. Most merchants are no longer willing to lose money on shipping just to snare new customers. Williams-Sonoma, for example, tacks on $15 to rush a $20 stainless-steel frying pan ordered on the afternoon of Dec. 23--that's on top of the standard $6.50 shipping charge for that item.
The upside is that retailers are a lot better these days at tracking inventory and estimating delivery times. As a result, more are willing to accept orders late in the game. "Nobody is going to make promises they can't keep," says Hillary Mendelsohn, author of thepurplebook, an online shopping guide.
One way to avoid exorbitant shipping fees is to order online and pick the item up yourself at the store. A growing number of retailers are offering this option, among them REI, Circuit City, Best Buy and Sears. But it won't always save time. Be sure to confirm that the outlet you have in mind has the item on hand or can get it quickly, or you might end up empty-handed after all.
--By Maryanne Murray Buechner